The Day of the Jackal Review
The story goes that Frederick Forsyth was flat broke when he wrote his first novel - The Day of the Jackal - in just 35 days during 1970. He was 32 at the time and had been working as a journalist, so began drawing from his wealth of experience reporting on the Biafran War and also French affairs following a posting in Paris. On 22 August 1962, Forsyth had watched with great interest reports of an assassination attempt on French President General Charles de Gaulle by Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, a member of the paramilitary group Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS).
The president’s cavalcade had come under a hail of fire and his Citroën DS limousine was hit with a bullet that narrowly missed him. It marked another failed attempt to assassinate the president by OAS, who were enraged at de Gaulle’s decision to grant Algeria independence and vowed to murder him. Any conspiracies to assassinate the president were destined to fail largely due to the first-rate intelligence that existed within France. This intrigued Forsyth, who contemplated what then might happen if the OAS in desperation recruited an assassin from outside of the country who had absolutely no police records on file. He imagined a cunning hitman who could slip through countries unnoticed by assuming different identities and having all the necessary skills to complete his deadly mission. This became the basis of The Day of The Jackal which, to Forsyth’s good fortune, would go on to become an international bestseller. Further luck would materialise within two years of the novel’s publication when renowned director Fred Zinnemann came across a copy whilst in producer John Woolf’s office and expressed a keen interest in bringing Forsyth’s story to the big screen.
By means of a tautly directed opening sequence, The Day of the Jackal doesn’t waste any time providing us with all the necessary backstory leading up to the failed assassination attempt of De Gaulle and the subsequent death by firing squad of Bastien-Thiry. This prompts the desperate OAS chief in Vienna, Lt. Col Rodin (Eric Porter), to call on the services of a mysterious upper class Englishman known only by his codename “The Jackal” – played by a memorably cool Edward Fox. The Jackal believes that he can complete the assignment, though admits he may never work again afterwards, so demands half a million dollars for his services, a modest sum even in those days you might think for such a dangerous undertaking. Further explosive action follows as the OAS carry out a series of daring heists in order to raise funds.
We then follow The Jackal as he moves around Europe, meticulously planning the operation. Firstly a meeting in Genoa with the gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) takes place, where the specification for a bespoke weapon is discussed. In a chilling conversation, the gunsmith casually enquires “Will the gentleman be moving?” before recommending a type of bullet to efficiently carry out the job: “mercury – much cleaner”. The Day of the Jackal may follow the exploits of a cold blooded killer, but there is never any gratuitous violence depicted onscreen. In one famous sequence we witness The Jackal practising using his gun in a remote countryside location, fine tuning the weapon as he aims at a watermelon. When the watermelon is hit by a mercury-tipped bullet it explodes into mush towards the screen. It’s a disturbing moment, but only by suggestion.
As the film progresses, the immaculately dressed and well-spoken assassin is able to effortlessly charm his way into various people’s lives in order to serve a purpose, only to despatch them later if it is felt they have jeopardised his objective in any way. A forger (Ronald Pickup) assigned the task of preparing false documentation foolishly tries to blackmail Jackal in an early scene and is bumped off as a result, his body hurriedly bundled into a casket to avoid detection. Similarly, later in the film a rich aristocrat, Madame de Montpellier, who is seduced by the Jackal and gives him a hiding place, has her life callously cut short after talking to the authorities. The kills are always swift, sometimes off-camera or else sinisterly concealed in the shadows.
When French Secret Service agents torture OAS ally Viktor Wolenski (Jean Martin) he reveals a name, later interpreted from a transcript as “The Jackal”. The authorities get wind of a plot, although they do not know the perpetrator’s identity. The second half of the film then focusses more on the intensive investigation split between Special Branch in London and the French authorities who have appointed their finest detective to the case – Claude Lebel (an earnest Michael Lonsdale), who is ably supported by his assistant Inspector Caron (Derek Jacobi). Lebel is given the simple instruction “No publicity and do not fail!” Having established the target as General De Gaulle, it becomes a tense 48-hour race against time to identify The Jackal and stop him before the President’s next major public appearance at Liberation Day.
Forsyth doesn’t change history, the real-life fate of de Gaulle was widely known several years before the film was released in 1973. Yet there is still a considerable amount of suspense in this fictitious story, largely because it is not known whether The Jackal will manage to evade capture and slip away never to be seen again. Just to heighten the tension, there is a mole within the government feeding information back to our assassin via a contact, so he is aware of progress being made in the investigation. As the Detectives start to follow a trail of fake identities, Lebel is eventually only a couple of steps behind the wanted man.
A major strength of The Day of The Jackal is that it manages to remain gripping throughout, while unfolding at its own pace and shunning an over reliance on big action set pieces. It’s brilliantly constructed by Forsyth and faithfully adapted for the screen by Kenneth Ross. Despite plot intricacies that present multiple characters and locations, the narrative avoids becoming overly convoluted – a pitfall of some other thrillers. Zinnemann, who previously directed classics such as High Noon and From Here to Eternity, started out as a cameraman and his visual style is certainly beneficial here. The film is expertly shot too by Jean Tournier, with some beautiful location work as The Jackal journeys across Europe. My only criticism of it is that everyone speaks in English, very noticeably a plethora of well-spoken British actors are playing French characters while not attempting an accent. Of course it’s not uncommon in movies for this to happen, particularly any made during that era, but it does take away some of the authenticity. For those willing to overlook this aspect, there is still much to admire about The Day of The Jackal and for fans of intelligent political thrillers it remains an absolute must-see.
The Jackal has remained one of the most famous roles for Edward Fox during a long distinguished career. It therefore seems quite fitting that Arrow Video have chosen to release The Day of The Jackal in sparkling HD during the same year in which the actor celebrated his 80th birthday. For those more accustomed to seeing early television broadcasts of the film with faded colours and print damage, this striking new release will come as quite a revelation. The spotless 1080p transfer is presented in the original 1.85:1 and exhibits no specks or lines. Fine detail is significantly improved over previous DVD editions and levels of contrast are equally satisfying. Colours are most vibrant during some of the attractive location work shot around Italy and France. The soundtrack is in LPCM mono, with crystal clear dialogue and no detectable background hiss or other defects. There is also an option for English subtitles.
At the end of the credits the American MPAA rating appears, showing that the film is a PG in the States. However, in the UK it still retains the 15 certificate given by the BBFC some years ago, presumably due to some brief violence and nudity.
The Day of The Jackal was also released earlier in 2017 by Australian label Shock Entertainment under their Cinema Cult series. Although I haven’t seen this release, based on viewing several other titles from Shock Entertainment, it’s worth mentioning that they don’t tend to include any additional content, therefore making Arrow’s edition of the film much more desirable for collectors.
Given Arrow’s solid reputation for providing quality extras, I was slightly disappointed on this occasion that they haven’t included any interviews with surviving cast members, particularly Edward Fox or Michael Lonsdale, who must have some fascinating anecdotes about the film. The main featurette with this release is In the Marksman's Eye, an excellent and highly informative 36 minute interview with Neil Sinyard, author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience. Sinyard provides a wealth of information, covering Zinnemann’s background and also discussing the casting of Fox in the title role. Apparently some major Hollywood names had shown an interest in being cast as The Jackal, including Robert Redford, but Zinnemann was adamant that it should go to a relatively unknown actor. Key moments in the film are also examined, such as the famous watermelon target sequence and the torture of Wolenski. Sinyard remarks that the controversial use of torture by authorities to obtain information is still a major talking point – citing Kathryn Bigelow’s more recent Zero Dark Thirty. The interview is full of spoilers, so best viewed after seeing the film.
Other extras include:
• Two rare archival clips from the film set, including an interview with Fred Zinnemann. Both clips are under three minutes in length and the audio for both is in French with English subtitles.
• Original theatrical trailer (approx. 2 mins).
• Original screenplay by Kenneth Ross (BD-ROM content)
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain. In my opinion the new artwork is far more eye-catching than the old gun sight design used for previous releases.
• Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe and film historian Sheldon Halls. This is included with the first pressing only (not available for review).
The Day of The Jackal is released in the UK by Arrow Video on 4th September 2017.