The Day of the Jackal (1973)


(director: Fred Zinnemann; screenwriters: from the book by Frederick Forsyth/Kenneth Ross; cinematographer: Jean Tournier; editor: Ralph Kemplen; music: Georges Delerue; cast: Edward Fox (“The Jackal”), Alan Badel (The Minister), Terrence Alexander (Lloyd), Delphine Seyrig (Colette), Derek Jacobi (Caron), Adrien Cayla-Legrand (President Gen. Charles De Gaulle), Michael Lonsdale (Lebel, Detective), Michel Auclair (Colonel Rolland), Olga Georges-Picot (Denise), Jean Martin (Wolenski), Cyril Cusack (Gunsmith), Ronald Pickup (Forger), Anton Rodgers (Bernard); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Julien Derode/David Deutsch/John Woolf; Universal; 1973-UK/France-in English)
“An engrossing film about a terrorist.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Fred Zinnemann (“High Noon”/”From Here to Eternity”) directs a political thriller with the skill of a master craftsman, based on Frederick Forsyth’s best-seller. It’s a riveting cat-and-mouse game between the mysterious lone-wolf hired assassin known only by his code name of the Jackal (Edward Fox) and the French Inspector Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), the master policeman in charge of the investigation. Zinnemann’s technique emphasizes the details of how the cold-blooded contract killer will complete the job and eschews the politics, keeping the action restrained and building in tension to the concluding assassination attempt.

The casting coups include the suave British actor Edward Fox as the aristocratic, cunning and inconspicuous Jackal and Michael Lonsdale as the sympathetic clever honest cop who is doggedly on the killer’s trail.

The story is set in Paris during a week in August of 1962. The president of France, Charles De Gaulle, by granting Algeria their independence has upset ex-army extremists, who formed a secret organization known as OAS. They vow to assassinate him. The film opens to a failed attempt on De Gaulle as he rides in a motorcade. After the OAS culprits are arrested and their leader executed six months later, the new leader Colonel Rolland flees to Rome. Under Rolland and his three top aides, the group in secret hires the foreigner Jackal to assassinate the president. They pay him $250,000 down and another $250,000 on completion of the job, and allow him to execute his own plan.

The French police are watching Rolland carefully and through their many informers learn that another attempt on DeGaulle will be tried. Failing to come up with more information they kidnap Wolenski, one of the extremists living with Rolland, and torture him until he gives up the code name of the hired killer. With little else to go on the cabinet ministers call upon the best cop in France to get the assassin, Lebel, who is sworn to secrecy about his mission and chooses to work only with Detective Caron (Derek Jacobi). Through a mixture of skill, luck and hard work they start to close in on the Jackal, as they trail him between London, Paris, Vienna, and Rome. The heart of the film consists of the Jackal’s elaborate preparations for the assassination and Lebel’s efforts to nab him, as the filmmaker crosscuts between the two opposites efficiently going about their jobs. The Jackal goes to a gunsmith, a forger, tries out various disguises, and has fatal flings with the wealthy married woman Colette (Delphine Seyrig) and the homosexual Bernard (Anton Rodgers). Lebel works the phones contacting his counterparts in the British police and meets with the bureaucratic cabinet ministers to report his findings, who treat him more as a servant than one of them.

The film was well-acted by this mostly British cast of established character actors and Zinnemann did a fine job of presenting the narrative in such a precise way despite offering no psychological analysis or humor. But unfortunately there was never any suspense as to the outcome, because history already told us De Gaulle was not assassinated. But, nevertheless, Zinnemann’s manic direction kept me involved with the story line, even though everything was so obvious. Though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the final payoff was a let down, as I found the last scene messy and unnecessarily a one-man exercise in heroics. But Zinnemann still got away with an engrossing film about an unsympathetic ruthless terrorist, someone you can only admire for his efficiency. Since terrorism is something topical these days, this film from another generation still seemed relevant.