Saturday 1 March 2008

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

In August 1962, the OAS were really not happy with Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, partly because he'd allowed French colonial Algeria its independence, and the film opens with an assassination attempt. Needless to say, they fail: de Gaulle lives, the would be killers are rounded up and the leader of the OAS is executed by firing squad. The remaining members are scattered, the organisation is riddled with informers and the new leaders have been forced abroad into Austria because their faces are too well known. While unsuccessful, they are hardly entirely inept and they realise that the only real chance they have is to hire a professional hitman from outside the organisation.

That man is codenamed the Jackal and he's played superbly by Edward Fox. He's at once memorable to us but nondescript to those around him. He's a professional who works with professionals when needed but does much of the work himself. We get to see a huge amount of that because the film is designed around the preparation for a job like this. We seem him select a fake identity, forge official documents, nest the trail, design a custom sniper rifle, adjust his telescopic sights, duplicate a key, change appearance, cover his tracks, even deal with people who know too much. The detail is admirable and it gives us our tension, because as we know de Gaulle was never assassinated we know the Jackal will fail and the story becomes one of wanting to find out how and why he fails.

One chief reason is because the people working on the opposite side, the French security forces, are no fools themselves. They know the OAS remain a danger and do a fine job of trying to work out what they're up against. Unlike what we would perhaps expect from government, they put the right people on the job and the right people know what they're doing. The chief players on this side come in once the ministry of the interior have worked out that there's the likelihood of a foreign hitman, but that process is efficient and deadly.

Michael Lonsdale is Deputy Commissioner Lebel, the detective who heads the inestigation from that point who tracks down potentials through the old boy network and the paper trails of authority. The other important thing is that, unlike the usual movie depiction of policemen, these people are intelligent and yet it isn't just intelligence that does the job. It's perseverance and the efficiency involved in dotting every i, crossing every t and thoroughly following all those paper trails all the way down the line. That's all very refreshing indeed, and yet even more refreshing is that that still isn't enough. One moment of decision and one unforeseen incident play a huge part too.

Lonsdale is excellent, efficient in his duties but believably tired and overworked because of what those duties call for, nervous in the presence of the French ministry yet perfectly willing to make his point to them. Like Fox, he appears very real and believable and completely unlike a movie star appearance. There are other major names hiding in here and all fit the same bill: Derek Jacobi as Lebel's assistant, Donald Sinden as a British official, Cyril Cusack as the gunsmith, Delphine Seyrig as a rich woman he meets in a hotel, Maurice Denham as a French general; yet they all admirably fade into their roles just like actors do and stars don't. It's as refreshing as the ending, which is real, believable and right and yet unlike anything Hollywood would do. Thank goodness this was a British film.

The most important name behind the camera though, beyond Frederick Forsyth who wrote the source bestseller, is American director Fred Zinnemann, a name I've known for a long time without having really known why, possibly because, like Lewis Milestone, his output is so varied and hard to categorise. I've rated four of his films before this one, and I gave three of them classic ratings; the very different films High Noon, From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons. There are other major films I haven't got to yet: Julia, The Sundowners and Oklahoma!, for instance, but I don't recognise anything from his first two decades of output. Admittedly many of these are shorts from series like Passing Parade, Crime Does Not Pay or the Pete Smith Specialties but I'm still guessing he's going to be a name I need to start looking out for.

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