On August 22, 1962, Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiery—in concert with the right-wing Organisation armée secrète (OAS)—attempted to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle by firing on de Gaulle’s automobile as it maneuvered through the Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart. De Gaulle miraculously survived the attempt (one of the machine gun bullets narrowly missed his head), and Bastien-Thiery was later tried and executed for the crime. This true-life event kicks off the narrative that is the basis of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal, which fictionalizes another attempt on the life of de Gaulle.
Adapted for the silver screen in 1973, The Day of the Jackal finds the remaining OAS leaders (exiled in Austria) anxious to continue their efforts to take out de Gaulle. Col. Rodin (Eric Porter), after a conversation with his confederates Casson (Denis Carey) and Montclair (David Swift), posits that an assassin from outside of France—the police know the names and faces of the members of OAS—will be most effective in carrying out the assassination, and the trio meet with an Englishman (Edward Fox) who insists on being referred to as “The Jackal.” Once $250,000 has been wired to his Swiss Bank account, Jackal makes meticulous preparations to carry out the assignment.
French authorities get wind of the plot after abducting Viktor Wolenski (Jean Martin), one of the OAS’ couriers, but the details obtained (via torture) are sketchy at best. After attending a top secret meeting of French ministers, Police Commissioner Berthier (Timothy West) recommends assigning France’s best detective—Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale)—to the investigation…and for the remainder of the film it’s nothing but nail-biting suspense as Lebel and his men race against the clock to stop The Jackal from accomplishing his mission.
There was a seven-year gap between A Man for All Seasons (1966—the motion picture that won Fred Zinnemann his second Best Director Oscar)—and The Day of the Jackal; Zinnemann had been working on projects like Man’s Fate (which was scrapped a week before filming started even after Fred spent three years in pre-production) and First Circle…but after reading Forsyth’s novel (the pre-publication draft occupied producer John Woolf’s desk at his home) he knew he had to make it his next film. Woolf and Zinnemann’s instincts proved on the money when Forsyth’s novel became a huge best seller and the author was offered £20,000 for the film rights.
There was no shortage of top acting talent vying to play “The Jackal”: Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Roger Moore, and Robert Shaw were all either considered or lobbied hard for the role. But Zinnemann was impressed with little-known Edward Fox’s turn in The Go-Between (1971) and he gave the actor the part. When the film was released, the box office take satisfied Zinnemann—though he later admitted Fox’s anonymity might have dampened the enthusiasm of moviegoers somewhat—and from a critical standpoint, Day of the Jackal won its weight in laurels, ending up on many year-end “Best” lists. Roger Ebert gushed about the film, noting “it’s not just a suspense classic, but a beautifully executed example of filmmaking. It’s put together like a fine watch.”
Ebert’s assessment of the film is why I find myself returning to The Day of the Jackal every five years or so. It’s one of the finest political thrillers ever filmed, managing to be methodical and engrossing yet never boring viewers with an admittedly large amount of detail. (One of the facets of the movie that I love is Zinnemann’s emphasis on showing the faces of various clocks as he did in High Noon .) My interest in Jackal was stoked by two photos in a textbook for a film class I took in college in which the real de Gaulle was placed side-by-side with the lookalike from the film (actor Adrien Cayla-Legrand); I thought the resemblance between the two men was incredible, and when I was hired as a CSR at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video I made certain Jackal was one the first videos I rented. The movie has been released to DVD in the past, but I cannot recommend highly enough a purchase of the Arrow Video Blu-ray edition of Jackal, which was released this past September 25. (Clint Weiler at MVD was generous enough to send a screener my way.)
The “fine watch” described by Monsieur Ebert is wonderfully entertaining every time I sit down with it, and it’s a testament to Fred Zinnemann (admittedly a favorite director of mine) that he was still in firm command of his craft. Zinnemann remarked in an interview in 1993: “The idea that excited me was to make a suspense film where everybody knew the end—that de Gaulle was not killed. In spite of knowing the end, would the audience sit still? And it turned out that they did, just as the readers of the book did.” Credit must also extend to screenwriter Kenneth Ross for his first-rate adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel (Ross would adapt Forsyth’s The Odessa File to the screen the following year) and the incredible cinematography by Jean Tournier. (Surprisingly, Jackal received only one Academy Award nomination…for Ralph Kempden’s superb editing.)
Often when I recognize British actors in movies it’s because I’m familiar with their work in television sitcoms…so I got a kick out of seeing faces like Donald “Two’s Company” Sinden (as the head of Special Branch), Tony “Don’t Wait Up” Britton (as Sinden’s underling), and Anton “May to December” Rodgers (as the Jackal’s “roommate” toward the end of the film). But the movie also features splendid thespians like Cyril Cusack, Maurice Denham, Derek Jacobi, and Delphine Seyrig (she’s always the formidable vampire in 1971’s Daughter of Darkness in my memory). Edward Fox is first-rate as the assassin: a calm and collected man with ice water continually running through his veins. And while many people probably remember Michel Lonsdale from Moonraker (1979—where, interestingly enough, he played an assassin in the Jackal mold)—his turn as the dedicated Lebel is the one that’s tattooed into my brain. (My favorite scene with Lonsdale’s Lebel is when he’s asked by his superior how he knew to wiretap the phone of a minister [Barrie Ingham] who’s been feeding information to the OAS merely by sleeping with an OAS agent [Olga Georges-Picot]. Lebel replies that he didn’t know—he wiretapped everyone’s phone to discover the leaker.)
Included on the Arrow Blu-ray—which features a 1080p presentation of the film—are goodies like the original trailer, archival clips from the film (with an interview with Zinnemann), an interview with Neil Sinyard, the author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience (I have a copy of Sinyard’s Silent Movies here in the dusty TDOY archives), and a nifty collector’s booklet penned by Mark Cunliffe and Sheldon Hall. If it sounds like hyperbole when I call The Day of the Jackal one of the greatest movie thrillers of all time (maybe the greatest) it shouldn’t; it’s a film that continues to provide pure viewing pleasure every time I introduce it to the player and Arrow really does the Blu-ray up right.