I’ll put my hands up here and admit that I am in awe, not only of this film, but of its lead actor, Edward Fox, the Jackal himself.
I make this admission so that you can accept from word go that this is not an impartial and purely technical review. It is, in essence, a mini-sermon on why I think I love it so much, and why I think you should too.
Firstly though, a nod to the book. A novel about the 1960s, published first in 1971 by Frederick Forsyth, one of the UK’s pre-eminent thriller writers. It captured everything about that time perfectly. The first generations of disaffected post-war colonial youths, abandoned by their leaders. The British, proud and self-righteous, the French, disorganised, disillusioned and delusional. To the rest of Europe, and even in most of France, the French-Algerian conflicts were a seen as but footnote to the massiveness of the Second World War and, for those inside it, this was too much to bear, and too much to forgive.
So, Day of the Jackal is the story of Algerian separatists deciding to create the biggest terrorist upset they can by killing Charles de Gaulle. Hero to millions, villain to many others. Although the majority of the plot and story is fiction, its basis is true. The OAS did exist, an unnamed assassin did kill for them and, well, who knows what else is true or not with people like Forsyth and le Carre and what they write.
The film, released in 1973, was initially a failure at the box-office. There’d been a lot of this kind of thing in the 60s and people were moving away from stoical political thrillers. However, critical acclaim and increased appreciation have made it a bona fide classic.
What the film does perfectly is create a sense of place and time and, most importantly, pace. It is shot at such a speed as to leave no stone unturned and yet allow the viewer all the time they need to gather the details, understand the actions and reactions and stay up-to-date with things. This is vital to such a wide-ranging set of characters and motivations and is where the latest Tinker Tailor adaptation falls down for many.
We follow the Jackal’s protagonists to their desperate conclusion, born from their prison-like existence in a stuffy Rome apartment, to bring the man himself in. He sets out his terms clearly and with complete confidence and this, in turn, sets the tone of the film straight away. We know in the space of 3 minutes that this is man with which we would not wish to fuck. The OAS know it too and straight away take orders from him, robbing banks to pay his fee. It’s then that he gets on with job.
The preparation process is strangely gripping. Because it is so deftly handled, with no pauses or second thoughts, we buy into the Jackal’s actions and quickly start following what he’s doing and how he’s going to eventually kill his target. The main reason we follow it so gladly is because of the man himself. Fox is the absolute epitome of English upper-class confidence. He is good-looking, suave, well-spoken, well-dressed and confident. Everything we want to be, and aren’t.
From his false identities, border crossings, liaisons with other ne’er-do-wells and the ruthless efficiency he shows in dispatching people who may compromise his identity or safety, we follow him obediently, almost willing him to succeed. Which is why the second part of the film is so clever.
After a kidnapping, and brutal interrogation, one of the OAS workers gives up a name and the French police work out that there must be a hit on. But, with De Gaulle refusing to be dictated to by terrorists, and no actual crime having been committed they cannot openly pursue anyone or act officially. So, the French interior ministry call on the police for their best detective, Claude Lebel. The manhunt is on and Lebel uses his equal cunning to guess and second-guess the Jackal’s actions, tracking him relentlessly.
Finally, when the hit is on, on Bastille Day, Lebel catches up with the Jackal at the last second, spraying him against the wall with a sub-machine gun. Even though we know the Jackal, admire his work, his style and resources, we are glad that Lebel gets him. It’s that clever a film to give a denouement that you buy into.
So, the characters are the film really. The pace is perfect, the colour and style are deftly managed to create the scene and not detract from the plot, but it’s the characters who make the plot move ahead.
Claude Lebel is the level-headed detective – thoughtful, passionate and patient. The Jackal is the level-headed killer – thoughtful, pragmatic and patient. It’s a duel really, played through three parts. That any film can have such a successful start, middle and end is rare. To do it this well is almost unique.