The Day Of The Jackal Review
Fred Zinnemann is often described as a great director on somewhat slim evidence. Along with his undeniably great films such as High Noon and the vastly underrated The Nun's Story, there are tedious scribblings like A Man For All Seasons and Julia, the sort of respectable films which are considered classics by people who don't really like films very much. However, despite my reservations about his talent, The Day of The Jackal is a very good piece of work indeed. Elegant, precise and almost painfully tense, it is a model of how a good suspense thriller should be presented. The fact that the outcome, for those of us with long memories or good history books, is never in doubt does not detract from the excitement one jot. In fact, the triumph of the film is that it suggests a counterfactual history without actually offering it.
The setting of the film, neatly sketched in during the first five minutes, is France in 1962/3, when military dissatisfaction with the policies of President De Gaulle had reached a peak. A renegade group of ex-soldiers led by Colonel Marc Rodin, called the OAS, had attempted to kill De Gaulle on five occasions but had been frustrated by chance and, more frequently, by the sheer incompetence of their footsoldiers. So they decide, as a last resort, to hire an outside killer, the Jackal (Fox). The Jackal, an upper-middle class Englishman, insists on total anonymity and absolute freedom to carry out the mission in the way he pleases. The film contrasts his complex preparations with the increasingly desperate attempts of the French police force to discover his identity and stop him before he can kill the President.
This isn't exactly an original concept, but what made the novel worth reading was the detail it contained about how one might go about planning a political assassination. The film follows this example, which sometimes renders it slightly confusing but more often makes it convincing and engrossing. The other aspect of the novel which was unusual was the total lack of sympathy in the character of the Jackal - crudely speaking, he's a total bastard, with only his skill and single-mindedness to commend him. To his credit, Zinnemann retains this and is assisted by Edward Fox. I've never been a fan of Fox, an actor in the "period laugh" school of performance, but he's great here. His jovial smile and poltie manner never hides the chill behind his eyes, and towards the end he becomes something vaguely akin to the Terminator. He dominates the film and holds it together when the sheer weight of detail threatens to turn it into a documentary.
The two parts of the film, the investigation and the preparations, don't always gel as well as they should. The scenes with the Jackal are inevitably more interesting, not least because he gets to meet with the sublime Cyril Cusack playing a gunsmith, and a deliciously camp Ronald Pickup as the least reliable forger in Europe. That's not to say that the police scenes are poor; in fact, Michel Lonsdale is wonderfully watchable as the detective in charge and there is colourful support from Tony Britton as a Scotland Yard man with an ear-popping Brummie accent.
However, there is one major problem with the film, apart from the fact that it's overstretched at two and a quarter hours. Around the middle, there is an encounter between the Jackal and an aristocratic French woman played by Delphine Seyrig. This is a big mistake for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is never remotely believable. Secondly, it detracts from the cumulative tension. Thirdly, it is unconvincing from a character point of view, since it involves the Jackal making a couple of mistakes that are hopelessly amateurish. The film just about recovers from this subplot, but it's a close run thing.
It's all put together in a very professional manner, with a slightly clinical edge. You don't get the feeling that Kenneth Ross, the screenwriter, is remotely interested in any of his characters, since he gives them the sort of functional dialogue that no actor could utter without sounding like he's speaking badly translated Cantonese. There are moments of humour, here and there, but otherwise you're obviously expected to take it terribly seriously. To be fair, this was also a defect of the novel; Frederick Forsyth is a wizard at plotting but doesn't appear to know how ordinary people talk. When a supporting character comes to life, it's because of the actor rather than anything on the page. The photography is crisp and sometimes atmospheric, although Jean Tournier doesn't manage to make much of the globe-trotting settings apart from a lovely landscape of Paris at dawn. Georges Delerue's score is minimal and effective. Zinnemann keeps the pacing taut and is commendably reluctant to overstate the violence; the '15' certificate is presumably for a couple of rabbit punches, a touch of bloodletting and some relatively discreet nudity.
The Day Of The Jackal is civilised adult entertainment and, compared to the loose remake, Michael Caton-Jones's unsatisfactory The Jackal, it's some kind of masterpiece. It's slow pacing and detailed exposition might not appeal to modern audiences, but those are two of the things which make it so effective. Generally speaking, in fact, it's rather superior to the original novel, and certainly more enjoyable.
Universal haven't exactly pushed the boat out for this release. The transfer is adequate in places and unsatisfactory in others, and the extras are decidedly unimpressive.
I had hopes that this release might be an improvement on the region 1 disc in terms of picture quality. While it is certainly better in some respects, the main disappointment is the lack of an anamorphic transfer. I don't really see the excuse for this, especially when the recent Universal Eastwood titles on R2 have been anamorphically enhanced. Given this defect, the transfer is just about acceptable. There is a grainy texture to the picture throughout the film and a small amount of artifacting in the darker interior scenes. However, the level of detail is very good and the colours are striking, without the washed out appearance of the recent TV showing.
The soundtrack is the original Mono track and is fine. Some of the dialogue sounds a little muffled in places, but the sound is clean and without intrusive hiss. Interestingly, the French language track has the French characters speaking French and the English characters speaking English. This is oddly effective.
The only extras are the original trailer, with a splendid Patrick Allen voiceover that is a lovely bit of nostalgia, and some reasonably detailed production notes. There are a miserly 16 chapters stops and static menus with the baffling icons so close to Universal's heart.
This is a film that is well worth watching, although whether you would want to pay £20 for such a no-frills disc is another matter. Definitely worth a rental, but only die-hard fans of the film are likely to find the disc worth buying.