Monday, January 17, 2011

Review – The Day of the Jackal

January 17, 2011

The Day of the Jackal – UK, 1973

The Jackal, as he called himself, is a bit like James Bond. Like Bond, the Jackal has an assortment of gadgets that he gets in the beginning of the film and that sit around waiting to be used for quite a while. In addition, like Bond, the Jackal has a way with women, well one woman at least, a bored, wealthy woman whose husband did not accompany her to a rather posh hotel. Finally, the Jackal and Bond share the ability to always get away just at the right time – as their enemies are approaching, they are making their getaway. The major difference, of course, is that the Jackal is the villain, and the heroes of the film are those trying to apprehend him, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that no one knows who he is or what he looks like.

Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal begins with a real event from history, the August 1962 attempted assassination of French President Charles De Gaulle. From the narrator, viewers learn the reasons for such an attempt. A group of French Foreign Legionnaires, along with some French citizens of Algeria, collectively called the OAS, have branded De Gaulle a traitor for granting Algeria freedom and have vowed to kill him. According to Wikipedia, the assassination attempt in the beginning of the film was just one of thirty plots hatched against De Gaulle. In the film, the attempt fails in spite of the fact that roughly 140 bullets are fired at De Gaulle’s car at close range. The man leading the attempt on De Gaulle’s life, Lt. Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry is arrested and sentence to death. He boldly states that no soldier will ever raise a gun against him. He is wrong. And with his death, according to the news, the OAS is “finished once and for all.” And in reality, by 1963, they essentially were.

The Day of the Jackal, based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel, imagines an additional attempt on De Gaulle’s life. In the film, the remaining members of the OAS are in hiding, yet they are determined to continue their actions. They decide that if they are to be successful, they must hire an outsider, someone not affiliated with their group. He should be a foreigner without a police record, and his identity should be known only to a few people. They choose a rather unassuming, blonde haired man who may or may not be from the UK. After settling on a price and establishing conditions, they asked what code name the assassin shall go by. He suggests “the Jackal.”

The first half of the film focuses mainly on the Jackal, for even though the authorities learn that a plan has been put into motion, without a name or a description, they have little to go on and therefore, do little more than sit around and compare notes, much like the character of Clarice Starling does in Hannibal, the subpar sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal suffered as a result of that. The Day of the Jackal doesn’t, though. We see the Jackal get a weapon, a fake identification, and other things a contract killer might need to do a job such as this one. Eventually, the authorities learn enough about the Jackal to spring into action, and a game of cat and mouse ensues, with the Jackal trying to avoid capture long enough to complete his task. He is aided by an OAS agent who has gotten very close to a member of the French government and gets him to whisper state secrets in her ear every night.

The Day of the Jackal remains interesting throughout despite the fact that it’s fairly obvious that the Jackal won’t be caught and that his fate won’t be decided until the film’s final scene. I liked how the first half of the film builds a safety net for the Jackal to operate within and then the second half slowly erodes his anonymity, starting first by determining how he got into the country in the first place. If there is a problem with the film, it is the Jackal’s ridiculous techniques for rendering someone unconscious or killing them. They make James T. Kirk’s two-fisted hammer to the back look completely authentic. In fact, one of the Jackal’s techniques seems to be a version of the Vulcan neck-pinch done for a split-second to the trachea, and it’s not believable for a moment.

The cast of the film is top-notch, starting with Edward Fox as the Jackal. He has the look of a person you’d never expect to harm a soul, and yet the way Fox plays him, you’re always aware that at any moment he could turn violent. Also excellent is Michael Lonsdale as Lebel, the man assigned to stop the Jackal. He is given two instructions: no publicity and do not fail. In most movies, a character accepts an assignment like this with resolve and determination. Here, Lebel looks like he’s about to have a panic attack, and his first request is for additional help. In later scenes, he looks extremely sleep-depraved. I imagine this is the way someone with an assignment such as this one would look in reality. The Day of the Jackal may not depict what really happened in 1963, yet the alternate reality that is does show is both fascinating and suspenseful. Once again, a job well done by director Fred Zinnemann. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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