The Day of the Jackal, one of the all-time great thrillers. How good is it? It's so brutally efficient, it's almost hard to explain.
It's 1962 and French president Charles De Gaulle is dealing with some serious civil unrest after he has given Algeria its freedom separate from the rule of France. A splinter group of rebels, the O.A.S., many from the French army, has had enough of De Gaulle's rule but an assassination attempt fails miserably, doing nothing other than alerting French security to the OAS' plan. Desperate to stop De Gaulle's presidency and power, the OAS command puts together a desperate last plan. They hire an extremely gifted, brutally efficient hired killer, an Englishman (Edward Fox), who agrees to go by the codename 'Jackal.' He's paid handsomely but has his work cut out for him as De Gaulle is protected by one of the world's best security forces. How will he do it? When will he do it? The assassin goes about his planning, his ideas known only to himself. Though the deal was made in extreme secrecy with the OAS officials, French security manages to catch wind of the assassination attempt. Can they find him and stop him in time? Not if the Jackal has anything to say about it.
Wow. Just wow. What a good movie, director Fred Zinnemann doing an admirable job of bringing Frederick Forsyth's equally impressive/entertaining novel to the big screen. How good is it? Knowing that this story didn't in fact....you know, actually happen, you start to believe that it did happen. When it comes to tough as nails, hard-edged stories about no-nonsense tough guys, it's hard to beat Forsyth, who also wrote The Odessa File and The Dogs of War among others. This should serve as a blueprint for how to construct a no frills thriller that will nonetheless have you on the edge of your seat. 'Jackal' clocks in at 145 minutes which may sound long but simply put, it isn't. The running time flies by, absolutely flies. I've probably been saying this too much of late -- I do have my reasoning -- but I'll go out and say this is a perfect movie. I love it. Hopefully you will too.
What's the big appeal? It's so well-written you believe that maybe Fox's Jackal did exist, maybe an assassin was hired to take out De Gaulle. It's just the sort of thing you could believe a government and security covering it up for the sake of national security. 'Jackal' wreaks of realism, of authenticity that all adds up. Zinneman films it in business-like fashion, giving it a quasi-documentary feel to the fast-developing story. Through the entire film, we watch the Jackal hunt (of sorts), the police on an international level (especially France and England) hunting him, and all the while wondering how things will eventually turn out (even knowing the history). The filming locations across Europe add another dimension to the film, especially the on-location shooting in and around Paris in the final act. It just works, every bit of it.
Hopefully if you're a history buff or even just remotely know some history, you know how this story will end -- at least in some fashion. So who to watch for? An underrated actor with quite a few good flicks to his name, Fox delivers a career-best performance as the Jackal. It is sinister and smooth, subtle and underplayed, Fox bringing this character to life in impressive fashion. Why? We literally know nothing about him other than some off-hand comments made about his reputation. He gives the Jackal an air of professionalism, a brutally efficient killer who kills not because he enjoys it, but because he's freakishly efficient at killing. His actions aren't personal. It is simply business. That element adds an interesting element to the story. You're not rooting for the Jackal per se, but you're nonetheless incredibly curious how he proposes to pull off this job. An excellent performance for Mr. Fox.
So while the Jackal is the unquestioned star, the rest of the cast is a very solid ensemble. The best supporting part without a doubt goes to Michael Lonsdale as Lebel, the deputy police commissioner tasked with tracking down an unknown killer with no physical description or any real idea where he's at. It's underplayed and perfect, a stressed detective pushed to his limit, forced to use all the tricks he's learned over the years. Derek Jacobi plays his assistant in a good part. Also look for Alan Badel as the French minister of the Interior, in charge of the manhunt, Thomas (Tony Britton), a British inspector looking into the Jackal's background, Cyril Cusack as the gunsmith who helps the Jackal construct his specialized rifle, and Jean Martin as Wolenski, an OAS clerk/bodyguard, a nice nod to the Battle of Algiers which Martin also starred in.
With a story that's underplayed and subtle, you might not think the story would be a thrill a minute type of thing. But it is, and it works better because none of it is obvious. The Jackal always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers in these great moments, the noose closing in. By the time he makes his attempt on De Gaulle, I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happens. What an ending, just a crazy, adrenaline-packed finale to wrap things up. As if that wasn't enough, there's a twist in the closing scenes that adds another layer of mystery to the whole story.
Just a phenomenally well-made and well-executed thriller. Can't recommend it enough.
The Day of the Jackal (1973): ****/****