Last few years could very well be remembered as the years of the dreadful movie remakes. The most notorious example is, of course, The Jackal, 1997 action thriller that shows the catastrophic lack of talent and originality in today's Hollywood. The movie is even less watchable for those unfortunate viewers who had the opportunity to watch the original. The original, 1973 spy thriller The Day of the Jackal, happens to be the best political thriller in the history of seventh art, one of the real gems of 1970s - the Golden Age of world cinema. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Fred Zinnemann, film's director, fought hard and losing battle against the studio heads, trying to stop them in their plan to smear his work by associating with "modern, contemporary" third-rate rubbish. Unfortunately, Zinnemmann lost his fight after the death and The Jackal was made. Fortunately, The Day of the Jackal is still available to those who want to see the really good films. And even those who aren't so sure about its top quality would probably enjoy comparisons between the two.
The movie was based on the bestseller novel by Frederick Forsyth, British journalist who made reputation by mixing real life events and fiction in his books. His first novel, The Day of the Jackal, published in 1970, also deals with real life events and begins with one. In August 1962, after giving the independence to Algeria, French President Charles De Gaulle (played by Adrien Cayla-Legrand) became the target of extreme right wingers and disgruntled war veterans united in the terrorist organisation known as OAS. The spectacular attempt on his life fails, the conspirators are caught and their leader, Colonel Bastien-Thirry (played by Jean Sorel) is executed for treason. At this point, real life is replaced with fiction - a year later, surviving OAS members, led by Colonel Rodin (played by Eric Porter) had decided to strike again. Their problem is De Gaulle's security service being the best in the world and their own organisation being infiltrated by moles and informants. So, the idea is to have an outsider, contract killer. The mysterious Englishman, known by his code name Jackal (played by Edward Fox) accepts the offer and begins his methodical work to prepare the assassination. In the meantime, French security services receive some information about OAS plans. Top government officials decide to hand over the case to Inspector Lebel (played by Michel Lonsdale), the best investigator in France. His job is extremely hard, because he must stop the man he knows nothing about. On the other hand, Jackal, despite some setbacks, is always one step ahead from the police and is getting closer to his target.
Despite having background in almost forgotten and obscure political troubles in early 1960s France, the script by Kenneth Ross is very simple and easy to understand, even for those who couldn't care less about the events of previous decades. The plot is universal, the characters well-defined, but they are anything but simple, despite having relatively little time to develop. That's because they all act realistically and through their actions, emotions (or lack of) or small gestures, we might discover a lot about their inner
thoughts, alignments, fears and anxieties.
Of all those characters, Jackal is the most fascinating. The novel and the film follow Hitchcock's advice that in a good thriller the villain must be more interesting than the protagonist. After 1973 many film-makers followed this advice, but rarely with such care and realism as in Zinnemann's film. Jackal is portrayed as cool professional, very dedicated, yet emotionally distant from his profession. During the course of his mission, he kills without hesitation, but he feels no pleasure in it - he isn't some kind of raving homicidal maniac; he does what it takes to get the job done. He also doesn't possess supernatural powers - he makes mistakes, sometimes even fatal, but due to his intelligence and numerous back-up plans, he manages to get away with it. Edward Fox, very good British actor, who later played mostly character roles, presented Jackal in a way that offers some kind of explanation to his actions. In this film, Jackal is a individualist who makes his own rules, and the challenge and thrill of his job is a bigger reward than mere material compensation. For some critics, Jackal was amoral yet romantic hero, one of many who used to captivate the imagination of the anti establishment audiences of late 1960s and early 1970s.
If Jackal could be seen as some kind of anti-establishment rebel, that same establishment is represented by the whole series of different government officials, who are, naturally, lacking his charisma and appeal. Among them, the most recognisable and the closest thing to personal rival is Inspector Lebel, played by Michel Lonsdale, one of the most reliable character actors from Europe. Two men has something in common - they are both extremely professional and dedicated to their job. But, Lebel is, of course, on the side of the system and he never breaks rules, making him one of the rare film lawmen that do everything by the book. Film suggests that his real problem isn't Jackal - the real problem is his cynical superiors who are more than eager to discard his services for petty political purposes. Lebel's struggle with inter-office intrigues, international complications and ineptness of his own national bureacracy is almost as interesting to see as Jackal's actions. It is natural for those two men to find certain bond, which is suggested in the last shot of the movie.
Other actors are more than fine too. They are plenty of them, but only a couple of them are stretching out, because their roles are rather limited in scope. Most memorable is Cyril Cusack as gunsmith who provides the perfect insight into the world of professional, yet morally cripple people like Jackal. The film also allows us to see some of the top British character actors in their early days, playing minor roles – most notable are Ronald Pickup as petty forger, and Derek Jacobi as Lebel's assistant Caron. Their acting is minimalistic, yet small details reveal a lot about the characters, setting and the story.
The very same technique was employed by director too. Fred Zinnemann tells the story very methodically, by exposing small details that would later be important pieces of great puzzle. His editing is superb - the viewer is given relatively small amount of information, yet enough to draw the clear picture for himself. The shots are very long at occasions, but only when it is absolutely necessary. The best examples are the scenes when Jackal must remove the witnesses of his crimes; those shots are very effective in its subtlety and hard to imagine in a movie decade plagued by gratuitous violence on the screen. Despite being the movie that last almost two hours and half, The Day of the Jackal remains very exciting for the viewers. That too is a proof of Zinnemann's talent. Another thing could also be seen in this film - the original music by George Delerue is almost never heard in the film, but the audience doesn't have the time to notice. For the most of the film, the music we hear is the one played on radio or on the streets. That too makes this film almost semi-documentary in nature, as well as documentary footage, which was very effectively edited in the final scene at the end.
The Day of the Jackal remains one of the best, if not the best political thriller ever made. It is clever film, that thrills the audience without insulting their intelligence; one of those rare films that employ viewer's brain as well as senses. Yet, despite anything, it remains very exciting and entertaining film that deserved its place among the classics of the Seventh Art.
RATING: 10/10 (+++++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on April 1st 1999)
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