The Determined Fox of “The Day of the Jackal” (1973)

Edward Fox adjusts rifle sightsAn air of inevitability hangs about Fred Zinneman’s “The Day of the Jackal,” based on Frederick Forsyth’s book about an attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle. (There was an attempt, but Forsyth’s book is almost entirely fiction.) The 1973 film adaptation is the espionage equivalent of a police procedural, and the would-be assassin’s preparations, juxtaposed with the French government’s attempts to thwart him, set the pace of the narrative. Like Edward Fox’s Jackal, the movement forward is implacable. Despite the government’s (and its allies’) progress in identifying and tracing him, the plot proceeds, and the assassin seems unstoppable.

Indeed, this sense of the pacing is one of the reasons the film’s editor, Ralph Kemplen, was nominated for an Oscar (and won a BAFTA).

Edward Fox was Kind of Foxy

the jackal at the border
The Jackal knows things you don’t. And, yes, he always wears a cravat. Murdering people for a living doesn’t mean you have to dress like a barbarian.

Edward Fox is fantastic here, even though, theoretically, he doesn’t get much to work with. The Jackal isn’t a big talker and, in any case, he’s frequently alone. It’s startling to discover that he can be charming, even seductive, when he finds it necessary. (Charm isn’t something he often finds necessary. He’d just as soon kill someone to tidy up a messy situation.)

About halfway through the film, the Jackal decides to go through with the job even though his cover has been blown. Hiding out at a hotel in France, he seduces the aristocratic Colette (Delphine Seyrig)—allowing him to spend the night in her room and slip out unseen the following morning. Seyrig’s Colette is intelligent and independent. She is hardly desperate for male attention, but the Jackal fools her all the same.

Seyrig does get an excellent line during their first chat. They are separately having after-dinner coffee and Colette is paging through a magazine when the Jackal makes his overture: “Boring, aren’t they, the magazines?”

I find them fascinating.

What? Articles about pig breeding and combine harvesters?

I’m enthralled by combine harvesters. In fact, I yearn to have one as a pet.

As it turns out, a combine harvester would have been a safer bet. His cover blown and his car identified, the Jackal turns up unexpectedly at Colette’s estate to lay low (and then steal a car). His “I had to see you” inspires such confidence that Colette confesses the police have been by, asking questions about him. And that is the end of Colette. Without further ado, he strangles her.

France Had a Right-Wing Paramilitary, Too

The film feels at once timely and of its own time.

The men who hire the Jackal to assassinate de Gaulle are members of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), a right-wing paramilitary group that operated from 1961 to 62, dedicated to preventing Algeria’s independence. Its brief existence notwithstanding, the OAS is estimated to have caused 2,000 deaths.

When the Jackal meets his future employers for the first and only time, they insist, “We’re not terrorists, you understand; we’re patriots.” Are they really worried what the professional assassin thinks of them? The distinction seems uttered only to reassure themselves. (If only Sean Connery could have popped out of a closet to quote Oscar Wilde at them.)

 

Playing Cat and Mouse with a Jackal

The Jackal’s counterpart in the manhunt is Michael Lonsdale’s deputy police commissioner, Claude Lebel. Lebel is called in to a secret meeting of the (all-male) French cabinet and given the assignment of stopping the assassination. To find the assassin, Lebel calls on what is literally an old boys’ network across the police and security services of various nations. (Lebel’s assistant is a very young Derek Jacobi.)

lebel and assistant strategizeLebel and the Jackal share a single-minded focus on their jobs. They are equally unflappable and skilled at taking advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses. (Watch Lebel catch the leak in the cabinet.) If you only remember Lonsdale as “Moonraker”‘s villain, Hugo Drax, it’s worth seeing him do something considerably more grounded in reality. (Though the two characters both have a kind of grim taciturnity.)

“The Day of the Jackal” isn’t funny, of course, but there is some visual humor when the Jackal crosses the border from Italy into France. His cover has been blown and police know they’re looking for a blonde man crossing into the country. But this is all they know. The Jackal is stopped at the border and taken inside to have his suitcase searched. The gendarme rifles through the Jackal’s luggage, surrounded by a bevy of other blonde men being similarly importuned.

The most iconic scene is the Jackal’s solitary testing of his custom-made rifle. He drives out to the country and finds a spot where he can test and adjust the rifle sights over a distance. Having made the first round of adjustments, he hangs a watermelon (which we have watched him buy) from a tree. The melon has a crude face painted on it. The first shot is a bit to the left. With the second shot, the “head” explodes (thanks to the mercury-filled bullets courtesy of the gunsmith).


It’s a quiet, laconic scene. The Jackal is precise, unhurried. The landscape is lovely, the birds are twittering. It’s hard to imagine that Anton Corbijn didn’t have it in mind when he made The American (2010) with George Clooney. Clooney’s character builds a custom rifle for an assassin. They meet out in the country, where it looks like they’ll have a picnic. Instead, the rifle and bullets are pulled out of the basket.

The female assassin tries out the rifle, makes some adjustments, and then takes out a target she’s brought. It’s not a watermelon (when I was remembering it, it was totally a watermelon), but the scenery, the action, the pacing echo the Jackal’s 37 years earlier.

Not everybody will share Roger Ebert’s verdict that “‘The Day of the Jackal’ is one hell of an exciting movie,” but it’s hard to argue when he calls it a “beautifully executed example of filmmaking. It’s put together like a fine watch.” The aura of inevitability is a testament to the skill of Zinneman (and Kemplen, the editor) in, as Ebert put it, choreographing the film.

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