Saturday 10 October 2020

Movie Review: The Day Of The Jackal (1973)

An assassination thriller, The Day Of The Jackal derives superb tension from meticulous mission preparations and dogged detective work.

The setting is France in the early 1960s. The terrorist Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) opposes the plans of President General Charles de Gaulle to withdraw from Algeria. An assassination attempt targeting the President fails and the OAS leadership is decimated, but the remaining members reconvene first in Vienna then in Rome. They hire a foreign professional hitman known only as the Jackal (Edward Fox) to assassinate de Gaulle.

The Jackal scrupulously prepares for his mission, carefully selecting a method, time and place. He orders a custom-designed sniper rifle from a Genoa-based gunsmith and fake identification documents from a master forger, and selects a sniper's nest location overlooking a Parisian public square. In the meantime, through surveillance and a brutal interrogation, French authorities get wind of the plot, but have few clues to pursue. Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is tasked with identifying and finding the assassin before he can strike.

An adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth bestseller, The Day Of The Jackal is an expertly assembled thriller. Director Fred Zinnemann, working from a script by Kenneth Ross, maintains focus on the detailed mechanics of planning an audacious assassination. By disclosing just a few tantalizing clues about The Jackal's plans, the film gains momentum from his methodical step-by-step process to target a well-protected head of state, where every detail has to be considered and looked after.

Enough is revealed about the context and objectives of the OAS to set the stage, but beyond the basic political backdrop the film deliberately bypasses character depth to focus on actions. Countering the Jackal's preparations, the frumpy Lebel is called in by his French political masters for an ostensibly even more difficult task: find a hitman with no name and no image. Lebel's round-the-clock detective work receives help from Scotland Yard, and the French and British services combine to gradually reveal a possible identity for the assassin.

Of course there are surprises and setbacks along the way for both sides. The OAS plant a mole (Olga Georges-Picot) deep within the French state apparatus to keep tabs on the investigation's progress. The Jackal has to take lethal action to snuff out emerging threats. And he does make mission-compromising mistakes and has to improvise liaisons (including with a sophisticated woman played by Delphine Seyrig) to evade the tightening net. Meanwhile, Lebel is battling the need for utmost secrecy, which stymies his ability to quickly action new intelligence.

Zinnemann wrings tension from long periods of silence, the dialogue limited to essential exchanges, the music absent. The European locations are more grey and looming than bright and picturesque. Edward Fox and Michael Lonsdale are comfortable in subdued roles requiring intellectual focus rather than brazen charisma. The two men exist deep in the shadows, The Jackal and the Deputy Commissioner locked in a gripping race against time and against each other, the fate of a nation hanging in the balance.

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