Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal is a meticulously constructed thriller using real people and events to structure a fictional tale of an anonymous assassin plotting to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, the president of France. Zinnemann half constructs a thrilling meticulously detailed guide of an expert mercenary preparing and carrying out those preparations to commit a heinous crime. An hour into the film, the second half of the story kicks in as the proper authorities become alerted and the thrilling man-hunt begins for the assassin codenamed the Jackal.
Edward Fox is frighteningly assured in his portrayal of the chameleonic Jackal, changing identities and physical gait with relative ease, seducing and lying his way through Europe to his ultimate agenda. Everything on his side of the film is near perfect in its construction. Zinneman’s attention to detail in every facet of the man’s plans show a frightening reality of the modern killer, finding our holes and weak spots, exploiting them to his benefit and to get closer to his ultimate kill.
It’s when the film switches over to the procedural side of things that the film becomes a bit wobbly. The middle drags as the film takes us from one bureaucratic investigative agency to the other across two countries as they build up clues that will eventually lead to the noose tightening around the Jackal’s mission. Due to the structure of the film and the realistic bent it takes in both the killer’s MO and the investigation itself, there is no rooting “good guy” that the audience latches on to. There is some attempt in the leading French detective, Claude Lebel (played by Michael Lonsdale), who takes lead in finding the identity of the Jackal but little time is spent with the character and becomes little more than a somewhat interesting cipher through events. The audience becomes much more engaged with the killer than anything else, which is somewhat refreshing but unfortunately that leads to half the film having a slightly dull edge.
A nicely constructed but ultimately dry, dull procedural is left in its wake but the scenes involving the Jackal right up the climax make this an engulfing thriller that leaves you on the edge of your seat. The film is a technical marvel in its lush and evocative cinematography and tight, suspenseful editing. Every step of his plan has an edge of reality and menace, and Fox’s performance truly lifts the film into new heights. Thorough and clean, seductive and dangerous, Fox inhabits the character with a reserved calm; even when things escalate and a normal man would be in a panicked state, Fox marches on calmly. It’s a scary performance in its relative normalcy. The Day of the Jackal is one of the great thrillers in this regard because they pull us into the Jackal’s story both being frightened and in a twisted sense, rooting for him and if they had been able to make this effort with Lonsdale’s side of the story, it could have come close to the perfect film. As it stands, because of our lack of a “hero” character or one that we become invested in with any great regard, the film ends abruptly and there’s a little sense of dissatisfaction which is unfortunate because the climax is ultimately quite thrilling.
- This weeks’ hidden gem (The Day of the Jackal) (mattsmustseetv.wordpress.com)
- Forsyth wins Diamond Dagger (guardian.co.uk)
- Your most unforgettable fictional assassins (thebookwriters.wordpress.com)