The Day of the Jackal (1973) … Remembered
I continue my inadvertent political thriller week with another well-made movie, The Day of the Jackal (1973). Once again, I was told this movie is the best of the bunch and the suspense was “real”. Hold on there movie buff, I’ll have to watch this movie to find out for myself. This movie doesn’t have Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, or even Danny DeVito to carry it, but instead stars Edward Fox, an English actor who was virtually unknown to me, so I was really going into this movie fresh.
Just as aside, I used to rent movies at the local video store and often found movies like this sitting there on the shelf just waiting for me to snatch them up, along with the latest releases. Not only are the brick and mortar video stores gone, but now even friggin television shows have begun crowding the viewing landscape at places like Netflix. I wonder how much movie studios really gain by rentals anymore, because it seems as if the whole wad of their cash is going to the theatrical release.
In any case, this movie was released in the 70s, a rather packed time for movies. The early seventies were great, featuring classics like Patton and The French Connection, but the late seventies only had a handful, such as Alien, Superman, and Halloween. Anyway, the 70s were decent enough for film viewers too and there’s always something I can pull from that decade to make me feel like a significant film review blogger type. Or whatever.
The 70s aren’t setting of The Day of the Jackal, instead the 60s stand in as the setting. If you aren’t familiar with either the 60s or 70s, that’s okay, but the setting is really France in the 60s, so I’m learning about a new movie and some French history all at the same time. It is about an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, a name that rung a bell because he was the President of France.
The movie opens with a narrator, who explains that the OAS, a group of extremists, has banded together to oppose Charles de Gaulle and his rotten policies. We see the cabinet coming out of the government building while some orchestral strings make us tense. Will something happen? Yes, some shady characters on the side of the road take a shot at the government cavalcade that speeds by. Predictably, they don’t kill de Gaulle. Instead, the leader is captured and executed.
The rest of the OAS reconvenes in Vienna and plans their next move. They think getting a foreigner to act for them is a good plan, as they all are well-known scum. They dialogue is fairly good, but I wouldn’t call the performances extraordinary. They get the job done. The movie is somewhat predictable at this point: extremists need assassin, intro our lead. Yay. He parades around and acts more cool than the Fonz.
The OAS order its men to rob some banks in order to come up with the money to pay their new assassin, who they only know as The Jackal. Meanwhile, The Jackal prepares for the job. Edward Fox does his best detached professional imitation and takes his time preparing, ordering a custom-made sniper gun, stealing a new passport, and other things. The technical details are intricate and well-done, as the movie tries to convince us that The Jackal is going to great lengths to prep to shoot de Gaulle. He seems to know exactly what he wants, so it seems like a pretty straightforward matter for this guy. We get no background on him whatsoever, so I’m left wondering just how he knows all he does about guns, disguise, and police procedures.
The French police capture one of the OAS leaders and torture him, learning only the codename “Jackal” and small elements of the plot. At this point, the police are investigating and The Jackal is traveling around. It is fairly dry stuff, mostly dialogue driven scenes. The Jackal scenes are way more interesting than anything else and he goes on prepping for another 20 minutes. The police call in their best investigative Deputy, who is played by Michael Lonsdale, and I’ll be damned if I can recall any film he has been in beyond the craptacular Bond-flick, Moonraker.
The French police discover The Jackal’s real name, but find a trail of aliases too. At this point, I was wondering if we would ever know who The Jackal really was, even though we, as an audience, can see him. He is a rich guy and an intelligent person, but just who he is, is never revealed. He is merely an assassin and that’s the point. The movie isn’t about much else than “pure detective work” to find and hunt The Jackal, like the police commissioner states at the beginning. The hunt for the Jackal takes up most of the movie, which is alright, I suppose.
Despite being discovered, The Jackal goes ahead with his plan anyway. He seems one step ahead of the police for some reason, perhaps because the OSA have contacts in the police. The camerawork throughout the movie is good and the French countryside is picturesque, where The Jackal hides out. He re-paints his car of all things, which is the most improbable crap I’ve ever seen. Anyway, this game of cat and mouse between The Jackal and the police goes on and on until the police finally discover what he’s planning. They’re hot on his trail, but there’s no surge of music to indicate this. In fact, there is very little music in the movie at all, which creates an empty feeling during scenes that are supposed to be suspenseful, like when The Jackal strangles someone.
This movie is long and only redeemed by Michael Lonsdale, who does an excellent job. Edward Fox has little to no discernible presence in the movie, which is not helped by the fact that his character is virtually a ghost. He kills professionally and is as cool as a cucumber, so it goes without saying that the police fail to catch him, but by some fluke, he fails in his mission to assassinate de Gaulle. The President bends over just as The Jackal fires his shot, thereby causing the bullet to go wide. It’s a fluke, but there’s no other way to do it without compromising the Jackal’s character. The guy hasn’t been making mistakes for 120 minutes, so one mistake at the end of the movie would seem out-of-place at this point.
As he stands there waiting to take the shot, it is fairly suspenseful, but they don’t linger on it like other movies, but it’s not overdone either, like in In the Line of Fire (1993). It’s the same kind of thing though, with the villain in disguise, missing his shot and the heroes scrambling to stop him. Anyway, the movie touches on the politics in France at the time, but only refers to the controversial topic of a free Algeria, which I believe was the cause of the extremists in the first place.
All in all, I would have to say that The Day of Jackal was a fairly interesting political thriller, but it is not very gripping, and it does not go very deep into politics like All the President’s Men (1976), so it cannot be regarded as genre defining. As for thrilling, I thought it was fairly somber, quite the opposite of suspenseful, but the performance of Michael Lonsdale added to the quality and the desperate measures used by the police pushed the pace. I guess I’m fairly on the fence about this one, but I think I’d rather watch something else than a repeat of this lengthy diatribe. Overall, the highlights are the visuals and Michael Lonsdale, but none of the other characters stick out, which is unfortunate. To answer my friend, I don’t know what the heck you were watching, but The Day of the Jackal is definitely not the best political thriller around, but this small film tries to capture what its bigger brothers do much better and it succeeds only marginally.