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August 27, 2017

The Day of the Jackal

by Franz Patrick

Day of the Jackal, The (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, gave Algeria its independence in August 1962, extremists, led by Colonel Bastien-Thiry (Jean Sorel), plot and execute his murder to no avail. Bastien-Thiry is caught and sentenced to death, but the group, known as the OAS, is quickly put under the leadership of Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter). However, since authorities know the faces of the members of the OAS, Rodin is convinced that they must find a foreigner to kill the president. Impressed by his records, Rodin and his two most trusted allies hire a British man named The Jackal (Edward Fox).

Based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth, “The Day of the Jackal” is as efficient as its title character: quiet when no dialogue is necessary, moves quickly and confidently, and smart with regards to its plot and story. Though many places and faces are visited and introduced, it is focused from beginning to end. It is aware that the final fifteen minutes are expected and so it is all the more important that the journey toward the assassination attempt contains a great level of suspense.

A lot of the attention is on what sorts of preparation are required for a man to be able to kill a public figure and get away with it. We observe The Jackal acquiring proper documents so he can successfully cross borders, visiting people who can help with his weapon of choice, buying materials that will help with his disguise just in case he is found out. The screenplay is so concerned with details, I found myself watching The Jackal cross a street and thinking that maybe he is counting how many steps it takes to get from one side to the other. This is a man who must have everything his way; an unknown variable means an unnecessary risk of getting captured.

Because The Jackal is smart and very detail-oriented, so must his counterpart. Commissioner Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is eventually hired by the authorities because they have no lead other than a code name. His job is to find The Jackal’s real name. Logically, this will lead to a face and then an arrest. Lebel’s pursuit of The Jackal is entertaining in a quiet way. There is no conversation that consists of threats over the phone, only Lebel slowly but surely closing in on his target. The Jackal is a very resourceful man, quite suave as well, and so just when we think it is game over, an alternative path reveals itself.

When the focus is not on the detective and the assassin, we get a glimpse of the police work and men of influence sitting around a big table. The scenes involving interrogations are intense and realistic while the official meetings are increasingly desperate with occasional humor. Lebel is often reminded that his rank is lower than the men he answers to and yet he is able to prove multiple times that he is possibly the smartest man in the room. While The Jackal is appealing on the outside, Lebel is given hidden layers.

“The Day of the Jackal,” based on the screenplay by Kenneth Ross and directed by Fred Zinnemann, is a great example of a cerebral thriller. While it does not have over-the-top and expensive action scenes, we are given something more: an increasing sense of unease—that one false move can cost one side everything. It is very similar to a chess match in that the more pieces that one loses, the more difficult it becomes to escape from being pushed into corner and facing the inevitable.


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