is 1962. Aggrieved when Algeria is granted independence by President Charles de
Gaulle, the militant underground alliance known as the Organisation Armée Secrète botches an
attempt to assassinate him. Within months many of the conspirators, including
their top man, have been captured and executed. The remaining OAS leaders,
bereft of funds, take refuge in Austria and warily decide to contract an
outside professional to do the job for them. They settle on a British assassin
(Edward Fox), who chooses to be identified as Jackal. The OAS orchestrate
several bank robberies to cover his exorbitant fee of half a million dollars
whilst the mechanics of the plotting are left entirely to Jackal's discretion.
After capturing and interrogating another alliance member, the French authorities
learn of Jackal's existence and, suspecting another attempt on de Gaulle's life
may be imminent, they set their best man – Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel
(Michel Lonsdale) – on his tail. But Jackal is cunning and, as his carefully
formulated scheme to assassinate de Gaulle approaches fruition, he moves around
Europe seamlessly changing his guise and identity in a bid to stay one step
ahead of Lebel.
from Frederick Forsyth's 1971 bestseller of the same name, director Fred
Zinnemann's suspenseful 1973 film The Day
of the Jackal is, in my opinion, one of the finest political thrillers to
be carried over from page to screen. At its core it's an increasingly taut game
of cat and mouse which subtly persuades its audience to champion both sides; as
much as we want to see Jackal thwarted by Lebel, we can't help but admire the
cucumber cool killer as his meticulous and seemingly fool-proof plan comes
together. This ineluctable sharing of loyalties is in no small part down to the
performances of the two lead actors. Edward Fox in his first major big screen
role – arguably his best – phlegmatically dominates the proceedings. Jackal's mien
is that of an urbane, unflappable English gentleman with a winning smile, but
it can all disappear in the blink of an eye as witnessed in a moment early on
when he deals with someone stupid enough to try to cross him; two swift, savage
barehanded blows later the man is dead. Fox's performance is matched ounce for
ounce by Michel Lonsdale as the savvy, resourceful policeman tasked with
tracking him down. Aside from some unfortunate and slightly distracting
continuity oversights relating to the artificial grey in his hair (which frequently
changes in volume), Lonsdale's Lebel is a compelling screen presence and I for
one would have liked to have seen him carry the role on through a series of
the film also benefits immeasurably from a peppering of British stalwarts –
among them Derek Jacobi, Timothy West, Donald Sinden, Barrie Ingham, Eric
Porter, Tony Britten, Ronald Pickup, Anton Rodgers, Maurice Denham and Edward
Hardwicke – and familiar faces from Euro cinema (Vernon Dobtcheff, Howard
Vernon). In a largely male populated narrative the sparse but nonetheless essential
female contingent appears in the shape of Olga Georges-Picot (The Man Who Haunted Himself) and
Delphine Seyrig (Daughters of Darkness).
off with some expository narration and then thrusting the audience headlong
into the bungled attempt on President de Gaulle's life, director Zinnemann
sustains high tension from the outset. Once the collaborative government forces
ascertain that Jackal intends to target de Gaulle in Paris, a palpable sense of
apprehension builds as we dot back and forth between frustrated government
officials – furrowed brows becoming increasingly sweat-sheened as they puff
nervously on their cigarettes – and Jackal going about his preparations
completely unflustered. The climax is located on the Champs-Élysées in the midst of the Liberation Day parade
and, as Lebel pushes through the hundreds of milling spectators futilely trying
to spot his man – whilst, in a nearby building, Jackal is positioning himself
to dispense the death shot – doubt begins to creep in that this will end
happily. Incidentally, these scenes were filmed during a real parade and more
than a few members of the public can be noted looking directly into camera as
Lonsdale moves among them.
Screenwriter Kenneth Ross’s script is masterfully structured and keeps the audience as much in the dark over the Jackal’s real identity as it does his pursuers. There’s a nice bit of misdirection (with a close of play payoff) when it’s concluded he must be one Charles Calthrop, this based on the fact that the first three letters of the Christian and surname conjoin to read chacal, the French word for jackal. If Jean Tournier's cinematography occasionally feels a little flat and uninspired, one can probably label it the result of artistic intent, since many shots carry a striking sense of documentarian realism and besides which stylish composition certainly wasn't beyond Tournier’s expert eye (just look at his work on Bond film Moonraker, which coincidentally also stars Lonsdale).
The year following its release The Day of the Jackal was teeming with award nominations, none more so than at the BAFTA ceremony where those it was up for included best film, director, screenplay, and supporting actor and actress (for Lonsdale and Seyrig, respectively). In the end it snared just one: Best Editing by Ralph Kemplen.
If you never see Michael Caton-Jones’s loose restaging from 1997 – which author Forsyth refused to have his name associated with and Zinnemann strove to prevent from appropriating the full title (it was called simply The Jackal) – you really won’t have missed anything. But for a premium evening’s entertainment you won’t go wrong with the original, just as essential and thrilling a serving of escapist film-making now as it was 44 years ago.
The Day of the Jackal makes it Blu-ray debut in the UK on a new disc release from Arrow Video. There’s a healthy but seldom obtrusive grain presence throughout and the original mono audio is pleasingly clean. Supplements are not prodigious but what's here is good. The most substantial inclusion is a 36-minute interview with Neil Sinyard, author of “Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience”, in which he discusses the director and the movie. Beyond this there’s around five minutes of behind-the-scenes location footage in which we glimpse Zinnemann at work with Adrien Cayla-Legrand (the actor who portrayed de Gaulle) during the shooting of the finale and interview material with the director; this is in French with English subtitling. Finally. there’s an original UK trailer with narration by Patrick Allen (whose voice enriched many a British release trailer over a period of 30 years or more). For those inclined to dig further there’s also BD-ROM access to the original Kenneth Ross screenplay. As is customary for Arrow the peripheral goodies comprise a reversible sleeve and a limited edition booklet, in this instance featuring material by Mark Cunliffe and “Cinema Retro” scribe Sheldon Hall.