Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Day of the Jackal

The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973) Not to be confused with the lousy 1997 retread (rather than remake)The Jackal with Bruce Willis and a ludicrously accented Richard Gere "acting the maggot" that was dumbed down for its target audience (Assassinate General DeGaulle?  Who's that?  Make it the First Lady, instead).

This one actually is based on the Frederick Forsythe best-seller, and done in as nondescript a way as possible, almost a prettified documentary style lacking stars (although Michael Lonsdale and Edward Fox would emerge from it with solid character-actor careers), but adhering stoically to the plot and its amoral assassin (Fox), both as cold as they come.

The Jackal is teflon—never been photographed, only rumors to his existence, but, he is hired to take out France's President by a cadre of disgraced French Foreign Legion Generals.  Their own clumsy attempt having, failed they turn to an outsider, anonymous, unknown but to have been involved with earlier assassinations.  Because it is a once-in-a-lifetime "hit," he demands half a million dollars on which to retire.

The movie then runs along two parallel paths of suspense, as the Jackal arms, plans, and sneaks his way into France, while the authorities, led by the cool-as-a-cucumber-sandwich Lebel (Lonsdale), after hearing rumors about an attempt, try to find information within their own circle about a man that no one has seen.

They might as well be chasing a ghostThe Jackal assumes identities, habits and companions, then discards them like an unneeded skin as he moves inexorably to a point in time and place that only he knows, with murderous equipment well-hidden, to meet his target.  He is one man.  But, the police and government authorities are many, though at times it seems less an advantage.  What is fascinating is the amoral methods of the two opponents, Jackal and Lebel.  The former is a determined sociopath, leaving a trail of bodies that are found only days behind him, while Lebel, entrusted with the life of the most powerful man in France, has no qualms about disrupting those of others, refusing to let decorum, jurisdiction, or bureaucratic bumbledom stand in his way.  He is, after all, fighting someone he doesn't know to prevent a crime he doesn't know where or when.

The script (by Kenneth Ross) is also morally ambiguous—not commenting either way on the actions of hunter and hunted.  In one astounding scene (only in that it is not astounding at all), The Jackal discards a temporary lover in a manner that seems like an embrace, only her stillness informs that she is, in fact, deceased.  Cerebrally chilly, and damned clever, the absence of stars might have made it less successful at the box-office (Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, and Roger Moore were considered potential Jackals, but the producers went with the less-well-known Fox so he could "blend"), but The Day of the Jackal is still a film exercise in meticulous suspense, and becomes the novel well.

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