Fred Zinnemann’s film of Frederick Forsyth’s legendary thriller is a rare example of a movie that betters the original book, in my humble opinion. You may also have noticed there was what claimed to be a remake, but there are very good reasons why the appalling and utterly pointless remake The Jackal should be consigned to the furthest depths of the ocean, but that the original Day of the Jackal should be compulsory viewing.
To younger readers it will be just another old thriller, but as with so many older movies (and to me 1973 does not seem that old!), the qualities it possesses make today’s flashier movies packed with special effects much the poorer by comparison.
Firstly, bear in mind that the historical context described by Frederick Forsyth in the novel and portrayed by Fred Zinnemann in the movie adaptation is very real. France was very divided by the Algerian crisis, and threats from the OAS against the life of President de Gaulle were taken very seriously – the astonishing movie The Battle of Algiers shows very graphically just how intensely the Algerian crisis was felt on both sides. The fiction of the pseudonymous assassin is hugely credible and grafted on to real events with great skill. Not only that but Zinnemann captures to perfection the atmosphere of France, Italy and London in the 60s, not least through using authentic location shots and through excellent attention to detail.
Some might say the use of reality in this way is a disadvantage, since you know from the start how it will end – de Gaulle was not assassinated and therefore the Jackal did not strike. But the movie grips you from beginning to end: taut, tense, spare, the ultimate game of cat and mouse between the contract killer and the authorities chasing him keeps you on the edge of your seat, and that is all you can truly expect from any thriller. The moody, threatening background music you expect in these films gives way to cheery French and Italian tunes, but at key points in the drama there is total silence – an incredibly effective weapon in the right hands.
Edward Fox is the cool, calm and ruthless assassin, codenamed Jackal, commissioned to kill de Gaulle by the OAS because their own organisation is riddled with informers. His meticulous planning, building false identities, developing a method of getting his weapons into and out of France, keeping one step ahead of the chasing pack, even the weaknesses that betray him, are recorded in precise detail. Michael Lonsdale is his unlikely nemesis, the shrewd and phlegmatic assistant commissioner Claude Lebel, reluctantly authorised on a secret mission to find the Jackal, reporting to the Minister of the Interior and his inner sanctum, one of whom is leaking like the proverbial sieve. They are supported by a fine cast of British and French character actors, not least Donald Sinden, Tony Britton, Cyril Cusack, Timothy West, Ronald Pickup, Terence Alexander, Alan Badel, Derek Jacobi and Maurice Denham.
In short, this is a classic of its genre. Not a film noir thriller, framed for style above substance, but a simple plot honed to perfection. Watch it and see why the bells, whistles and CGI effects are simply redundant.