After his exquisite A Man for All Seasons (1966) won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Fred Zinnemann had every reason to feel like the luckiest director in Hollywood. The truth is he would not get to direct his next film for another seven years. His attempt to direct an adaptation of André Malraux’ Man’s Fate for MGM had fallen through, and a court battle with the studio almost pushed him over the edge and into bankruptcy. It seemed like his career had nowhere left to go when, suddenly, straight out of nowhere, an offer from Universal came to direct an adaptation of a spy novel that was about to be a huge best-seller. The book, published in 1971, was Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, and the movie, released in 1973, is a masterpiece—the greatest film of Zinnemann's career.
Not everyone felt that way at the time, least of all Zinnemann himself. In an interview, he was modest: “The Day of the Jackal was made purely as entertainment,” he claimed, “and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It should not be taken seriously politically or in any other way, because it’s just a technical exercise in suspense.” Today, The Day of the Jackal is widely regarded as one of the best thrillers of its era: politically-charged, suspenseful to the max, and taken seriously (for a variety of reasons) by a host of devoted fans all around the world. And yet Zinnemann would forever insist that the movie was little more than a simple crowd-pleaser; one look at the finished film and it is clear he was underrating his own masterpiece. Why did he do this? In his 1992 autobiography, A Life in Pictures, he provides some hints as to why.
Zinnemann, it seems, was intensely paranoid about the modern Hollywood system after the cancellation of Man’s Fate, which, as he wrote, “marked the end of an era in picture making and the dawn of a new one, when lawyers and accountants began to replace showmen as head of the studios and when a handshake was a handshake no longer." In a strange career move, he must have determined that the best way to sell a complex project like The Day of the Jackal to those lawyers and accountants was to reduce its qualities; it was, he claimed, just a simple thriller about a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, and that was it. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
From its opening voiceover (“August, 1962 was a stormy time for France…”), The Day of the Jackal presents itself as a radical portrait of the seething, right-wing French “patriots” of the 1960’s, who felt betrayed by General Charles de Gaulle’s controversial decision to pull France out of the Algerian War. The general, during his terms in office, was hated equally by the right and the left, but for different reasons. The right despised him for losing the war, and the left would never forgive him for carrying on the war in the first place (actress Anne Wiazemsky once claimed that even Jean-Luc Godard thought de Gaulle deserved to be shot). Knowledgeable lovers of cinema will recall that Gillo Pontecorvo’s excellent The Battle of Algiers (1966) ended with the nationalists uniting victoriously while the French military pulled out of Algeria, shamed and embarrassed. Zinnemann’s film is the story of what happened next.
At the center of Zinnemann’s film is a continental chase between two European men, one a professional assassin, the other a detective. The first man, the assassin, is an anonymous Englishman, codenamed the Jackal (Edward Fox), hired by the French OAS (Secret Army Organization) to assassinate Charles de Gaulle for half a million in cash. The second man, the detective, is Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), the French spy who is appointed by a committee at Élysée Palace to help hunt down the Jackal before time runs out. For the longest time in the movie, Lebel and the rest of the authorities believe they have an idea who the Jackal may be, only to eventually realize (at the last minute) that they’ve been wrong the whole time. By the end of the film, the Jackal remains a mystery, his anonymity left unsolved.
Lebel is technically supposed to be the movie’s hero, and the Jackal technically its villain, but both men are equally likable, and I think part of the reason why the movie works so well is because the two characters are perfect foils for one another. By giving us both an appealing hero and an appealing villain, Zinnemann allowed it so that audiences could watch the film with fluctuating sympathies towards both men. When we’re disgusted with the Jackal’s reprehensible killings, we root for Lebel. When we grow tired of Lebel’s long, slow, calculated process of cracking the case, we find ourselves rooting for the Jackal again. This is a fun, ongoing process of love/hate feelings towards both men that we share all throughout the picture. Audiences who saw Zinnemann’s Spanish Civil War epic Behold A Pale Horse (1964) were disappointed that it didn’t end with Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn duking it out, but no worries: Zinnemann doesn’t make that same mistake here. We are promised a final showdown between Fox and Lonsdale, and, fortunately, we get one.
The Jackal has got to be one of the most interesting antiheroes ever to lead a Hollywood film. Watching the movie, we have a mixed response to the character. In a sense, we can’t help but like him; he’s a charming, fairly uncomplicated man, who seeks to kill de Gaulle not because of any personal feelings he may have about the man (hell, for all we know, he may even like de Gaulle a little), but because—to put it frankly—he wants the money. “You must understand: this is a once-in-a-lifetime job,” he warns Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter) and his OAS cronies. “Whoever does it can never work again.” His insists that his fee of half a million in cash is quite sound: “Considering you expect to get France in return, I’d have thought it a reasonable price.” On the other hand, much as we’d like to sympathize with the Jackal’s dreams of fortune and glory, we also have to take into account that he is, at the end of the day, a killer, and that an assassination of the general will do a lot more harm than good. De Gaulle has, arguably, done his military a great favor by pulling them out of a pointless, unpopular war. Why kill him?
The film is wall-to-wall with sudden bursts of violence, many of them committed by the Jackal himself. To ensure that we are repulsed, not excited, by such moments, Zinnemann visually associates the Jackal’s killings with pornography in certain scenes. In the scene where the Jackal smashes in the gut of a forger (Ronald Pickup) who has tried to blackmail him, Zinnemann moves for a close-up of the Jackal’s face—hardened, silhouetted in shadow—while a portrait of a topless model looms tall in the background. In the scene where the Jackal kills Madame de Montpellier (Delphine Syrig), Zinnemann once again closes in on the Jackal’s shadowy face, quietly snapping the neck of the woman underneath him—a murder committed during sex. In the scene where the Jackal kills a landlady who has offered him a glass of water, a small picture of a naked baby can be glimpsed on the wall behind him. Another murder, in which the victim is a homosexual (Anton Rodgers), serves a different purpose: it occurs offscreen while John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (which was about a handicapped dwarf) plays on a TV set, foreshadowing the grand finale in which the Jackal will, ironically, disguise himself as a handicapped war veteran.
A number of Zinnemann’s most famous films (High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons) share a common theme: the isolated protagonist with a conscience in crisis. In The Day of the Jackal, it is not the Jackal who suffers a conscience crisis, but Lebel; he is not at all pleased with being assigned this demanding job of tracking down a dangerous killer. In Forsyth’s book, the character is described as “the cartoonist’s image of a hen-pecked husband,” and no wonder: when we first see Lebel in the movie, he is innocently tending to pigeons in his backyard when his wife suddenly comes running out of the house, telling him he’s needed at work, demanding that he remember to come home early. To cope with the difficulties of the job, he requests the assistance of a younger colleague, Caron (a young Derek Jacobi), and warns him that many things will be needed to set up their new office, among them “a percolator and lots of coffee.” Some of the best moments in Kenneth Ross’ brilliant screenplay involve the back-and-forth rapport between Lebel and Caron, among them this memorable exchange:
Caron: You know, sir, what they’ll do to you if you don’t catch this man in time?
Lebel: I’ve been given a job, so we’ll just have to do it.
Caron: But no crime has been committed yet, so where are we supposed to start looking for the criminal?
Lebel: We start by recognizing that, after de Gaulle, we are the two most powerful people in France.
And so they are. Before we know it, Lebel and Caron become France’s answer to Holmes and Watson. Indeed, as we later realize, they are even better detectives than we’ve given them credit for. They are, for example, keeping a close watch for the white Alfa Romeo two-seater which the Jackal is reportedly driving around Europe. They are quick to arrive on the scene of a hotel near Grasse where the Jackal has allegedly spent the night. They successfully trap an OAS spy who has infiltrated Élysée Palace. And so on. We like Lebel and Caron so much, in fact, that, yes, we do want to see them catch the Jackal in time, even though we also harbor a perverse desire to see the Jackal succeed in eliminating his target first. By giving us both a likable villain and a likable dynamic duo, Zinnemann achieves the impossible: he has ensured it so a majority of his audience will be satisfied with his movie no matter who wins in the end.
Trains. There are trains in nearly all of Zinnemann’s movies. Remember the train filled with young Holocaust survivors in The Search (1948), Frank Miller’s train in High Noon, Omar Shariff’s missed train in Behold A Pale Horse and the several trains which Lillian boards in Julia (1977). The great critic Marilyn Ferdinand has commented on Zinnemann’s “affinity for trains, close-ups, and ability to coax iconic performances to dizzying heights,” and in The Day of the Jackal he provides a set piece for a train sequence that is dizzying, indeed. The Jackal, disguised as a schoolteacher named “Perl Lundquist,” has just arrived in Paris and is headed for a Turkish bath. In the film’s most spellbinding shot, Zinnemann and his cameraman, Jean Tournier, track the Jackal’s taxi as it speeds off—while Lebel and Caron’s car passes the taxi in the opposite direction, towards the train station, in the exact same shot. Other sequences in the movie boast some fine editing by Ralph Kemplen (the only crew member who was Oscar-nominated for his efforts) and a thunderous score by Georges Delerue. Roger Ebert, in his glowing 4-star review of the film, summed it up best: “The movie’s technical values (as is always the case with a Zinnemann film) are impeccable.”
The movie is well-remembered for its impressive gallery of British and French actors, some of them playing nuanced characters, some of them not. Forsyth’s 350-paged book had enough space for an unlimited amount of backstories; the movie, with its 143-minute running time, doesn't. In the movie, the gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) who sells the Jackal an elaborate rifle is just a simple salesman who takes his job seriously; in the book, he is given a name, "M. Goosens," and is revealed to be a lonely, divorced family man. Also in the book, the OAS have a bodyguard, Viktor Kowalski, who is kidnapped by Action Service after he is baited with news that his daughter is dying of leukemia. In the movie, he is named Wolenski (Jean Martin, who played Colonel Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers), does not have a daughter and is intercepted by Action Service simply because they know his wrist is handcuffed to the OAS’ important files. These backstories didn’t make their way into the film because they don’t have much to do with the conflict between the Jackal and Lebel (another sequence from the book that was cut involved the Jackal entering a gay bar, dressed in drag!), but otherwise Kenneth Ross’ screenplay remains fairly true to Forsyth. Ross, for some unexplained reason, would go on to write only three more screenplays after this film, two of them for John Frankenheimer.
One subplot that Ross and Zinnemann do retain from Forsyth’s book turns out to be one of the film’s more emotionally-involving stories, and it doesn’t even involve the Jackal or Lebel. The OAS have a female spy, Denise (Olga Georges-Picot), named “Jacqueline” in the book, who seeks to avenge her fiancée’s death in Algeria. In a scene in the film that, once again, subtly equates violence with pornography, an OAS member burns a photograph of Denise’s fiancée while ordering her to “get involved” with one of de Gaulle’s officials; a tear can be seen sliding down her face while she helplessly watches her lover’s picture cast into the fire. Later in the film, however, she makes a stunning transformation into a sexy, irresistible femme fatale, and we realize that she is actually very good at her job. Her scheme to seduce St. Clair (Barrie Ingham) during a ride on horseback looks as though it were inspired by Hitchcock’s Notorious, and it’s little surprise that a seemingly committed family man such as him winds up falling for her.
This scene is beautifully, heartbreakingly delivered by the actor Barrie Ingham, who also provides the film’s opening narration; he would later be more well-known to juvenile audiences as the voice behind Basil of Bakerstreet in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective (1986). But he steals this one scene in The Day of the Jackal so unexpectedly that he’s one of the things about the movie we remember the most. In the book, the character of St. Clair is a nastier piece of work: an obnoxious ball-buster who resents Lebel’s authority, and whose eventual disgrace before his peers is hardly worthy of our pity. Zinnemann and Ross, however, are wise to make him more of a naïve and pathetic figure in the movie, and we can’t help but feel a little bad for him; his downfall is a reminder of the Van Heflin hero’s fate in Zinnemann’s classic film noir Act of Violence (1949). True, in retrospect, St. Clair has nobody to blame but himself; his mistake could have been easily avoided if he had simply remained true to his family. But not every sinner in the world finds themself in the unusual position of somehow committing treason in the wake of adultery, making his suicide of a drug overdose at the end of the film all the more tragic.
Another emotionally-charged subplot in the film involves the tragic fate of Madame de Montpellier, nicknamed “Colette,” who is unfortunate enough to meet the Jackal at the hotel near Grasse. The wonderful actress Delphine Seyrig (from Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) portrays her as a rich housewife who appreciates the Jackal’s attempts to flirt with her; she comfortably admits to him that her life story is “unfortunately” true, and that she is not terribly pleased about her 19-year old son getting a military commission. They discuss mountain-climbing in the Alps, foreshadowing Zinnemann’s great final film, Five Days One Summer (1982). They have sex twice, once at the hotel, another time at her own house when the Jackal arrives on her doorstep uninvited (there is, amusingly, a plentiful amount of nudity and sex in the film for a PG-rated thriller). It is here, at the house, that the Jackal murders her when she innocently inquires about what he’s up to. At this point we find ourselves starting to hate the Jackal; Colette has given him her hospitality and her love, and we sincerely believe her when she insists she won’t rat out on him, so his decision to execute her as a witness feels grossly unjust. She, like St. Clair, is another poor soul in the movie who pays an unfair price for her adultery.
If there’s anything in the movie that may turn off some viewers today, it might be Zinnemann’s depiction of the gung-ho, by-any-means-necessary attitudes of the Action Service, who are willing to go to just about any extreme measures to ensure that the Jackal is caught. Which means that, yes, they are open to torture; one of the most excruciating sequences in the movie involves the torture of Wolenski the bodyguard, who suffers so badly from his electric shocks that he dies immediately after spilling the beans. In scenes like these, Zinnemann is dangerously skirting the borderlines of a pro-torture argument, but I don't think he's going so far as to make an outright case for torture. One scene shows an Action Service cop listening to Wolenski’s confessions, disgusted by the cries of suffering on the audio tape, ripping off his headphones and roaring, “What the hell did they do to the bastard!??” Here, the movie is quick to demonstrate that the practice of torture has flaws of its own.
Lebel, too, finds himself having to go to some ruthless measures in order to do his job, and when it is discovered that he is the one who wire-tapped St. Clair’s phone, the Minister asks him how he knew whose phone to tap. “I didn’t,” Lebel coolly replies, “so I tapped all of them.” This is a disturbing line, yes—especially in our era of the dreaded Patriot Act—but I would argue that Zinnemann is simply asking us if a practice as immoral as wire-tapping might be necessary in such a drastic ticking time-bomb situation, unethical as it may be. As Neil Sinyard thoughtfully puts it in his book on Zinnemann, Films of Character and Conscience, “The implication seems to be that terrorism can only be combated by terrorism from the State, which necessitates an indifference to the relation between means and ends. It is a depressing thought, for the danger is that it might ultimately blur the distinction between the two.”
The movie's lead actors are sensational. Edward Fox is absolutely right for the Jackal, bringing to the role a sense of mystery and anonymity that a more famous actor would have been incapable of supplying. Fox revealed in a recent interview with Riverside Studios that he was cast in the role because Zinnemann was impressed with his delivery of an absurd line of dialogue (“Nothing is ever a lady’s fault!”) in Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1970). In the same interview, Fox informs a live audience that Zinnemann and Frederick Forsyth got along rather well (he claims they even went to bars together, where they were accosted by hookers), although Fox adds that their working relationship was more formal: "Zinnemann wasn’t very keen on having anybody who wasn’t integral to the film on the set. Visitors weren’t terribly welcome, and that included old Freddie Forsyth, too."
Michael Lonsdale’s portrayal of Lebel is a terrific demonstration of Zinnemann’s favorite type of protagonist: tense and uneasy about his responsibilities, before finally gathering up the courage to face his fears and live up to the challenge awaiting him. Lonsdale has often been typecast throughout his career in roles as religious figures; his portrayals of clergies in Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), Jacques Jean-Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986), Milos Foreman’s Goya’s Ghosts (2006) and Xavier Beauvois’s recent Of Gods and Men (2011) all come to mind. But whenever he returns to his thriller roots, it is always a true delight; Steven Spielberg has verified that he cast Lonsdale as the crime lord “Papa” in Munich (2005) after fondly remembering his portrayal of Lebel in Zinnemann’s film.
The final confrontation between Fox and Lonsdale is one of the great final confrontations in the history of movies. The Jackal just barely misses his target (de Gaulle has bent too far forward), and suddenly the door bursts open and Lebel is up there in the same room with him—it's the first time they've met face-to-face. Both struggle to load their weapons and fire at each other, but Lebel fires first (with a MAT-49 picked up from a fallen CRS guard), and the Jackal is blasted against the wall. There is an unforgettable close-up of Lebel's face, sweaty and well-lit (as opposed to shadowy, like the Jackal's face after the murders of Colette and the forger). He cannot quite believe it: he has struck down the Jackal himself. The look of astonishment on his face suggests this may be the first time in his life he has ever killed a man.
The film’s only flaw is the quickened pace of the concluding scenes following the Jackal's death, which feel too rushed. Disappointingly, the chilling last line of Forsyth’s book (“The day of the jackal was over”) is never included. The final shot, of a key character standing sadly over the Jackal’s freshly-buried grave, is so mesmerizing that we want Zinnemann to hold the shot for a long time—but he doesn’t. The end credits begin rolling sooner than they should, although the closing image of a lion statue parked in front of Élysée Palace does, in some ways, remind us of the lion and dragon statues in the closing moments of A Man For All Seasons, another film about a martyred rebel.
Zinnemann leaves us with some troubling questions, among them the question of whether or not the heroes have actually succeeded in, well, learning anything at all about their enemy. "I don’t think we ever really had any idea what kind of man you’ve been pursuing during the past two weeks," the Minister confesses to Lebel—and that, unfortunately, remains to be the case when the movie is over. The Jackal may be dead, but so what? They didn't even get to find out what his real name was; their suspicion of him as being one “Charles H. Calthrop” turns out to be a false lead. "If the Jackal wasn’t really Calthrop," ponders Inspector Thomas (Tony Britton), "then who the hell was he?" All that torture and wire-tapping, it seems, may have saved the general’s life, but there are no personal rewards to be reaped. Few things are uglier than killing a man with no identity and no recorded background, doomed to be buried in a forgotten and unmarked grave. They never knew anything about him.
Claude Lebel is the only character left standing at the end of the movie who still truly, honestly wants to know who the Jackal was. For everybody else in the movie, it doesn't matter, and life goes on. For him, it won't. He’ll have to go back home to his wife, back to his pigeons, back to his job, back to his missions with Caron, continuously wishing he could have had a little more time to learn something about his enemy. He never does get to find out who the Jackal was, or why the Jackal turned to a life of cold-blooded killing. But Lebel, bless his heart, would still like an answer to those questions. In its own special way, that is a sign of progress. And he is the only person in the movie who goes to the Jackal’s funeral.