Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Day of the Jackal

1973's THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is one of the most intricately crafted, precise thrillers I've seen. A real jewel in the suspense genre. A film that respects its audience and trusts them to connect the dots without gratuitous, insulting exposition or garish set pieces. The story is complex but not convoluted. Rather, it is elegantly lean.  A quiet few hours that eschews scoring (take note, filmmakers!) and overly engineered adrenaline yet is nonetheless quite exciting. I'm still mulling how such a deliberated paced few hours nonetheless flew by.

Roger Ebert described the film as a "Swiss watch".  I can't think of a better descriptor, even without the film's multiple close-ups of timepieces.  Every scene is meticulously composed, but never rubs our face in its technique. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, which is based on Frederick Forsyth's bestseller, may sound thus far like a cold film, filled with mere function and no emotional connection.  While character sketches are broad, the excellent cast allows nuances to explain their essentiality, rather than with scenery chewing or any of the ol' ham fat that Olivier used to joke about. There are no unnecessary outbursts or slang filled rants to be found.

The Organization of the Secret Army wants French President Charles de Gaulle dead. They will go as far as to open fire on his motorcade in the light of day. When their failure ultimately results in the apprehension and execution of several OAS members, those remaining retreat to Vienna and plot a new course.  The "Jackal" is an ace British assassin (James Fox) hired to assail de Gaulle.   He's handsome and charming, and exceedingly crafty and cunning, with some impressive disguises.  New identities, sometimes of those who he's befriended and later killed, are frequent.  The Jackal indeed dispatches those who've served their purpose (craftsmen, lovers) without remorse as he inches closer toward his target, made easier by the fact that de Gaulle refuses to alter his scheduled appearances, including his presentation of medals to veterans of the French Resistance on Liberation Day.

Deputy Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) methodically tracks the Jackal, utilizing colleagues across Europe and intel from French cabinet members who may or may not have OAS moles as a bedmates.  There are many pleasures allowed, watching him work.  One feels like a fortunate shadow, privileged to see his mind process each clue, to hear every articulation of thought, every occasional dry bit of wit.

Director Fred Zinneman employs a similar methodical approach to his film: to its plotting and pace, location filming and set design.  All impeccable.  He gives the film a literary feel while likewise engaging us with the thrills of good old fashioned storytelling.  THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is a film I return to again and again, not for another round of some highbrow filmic analysis but rather to remind myself how a Bentley of the cinematic realm ticks.  Damned if you can find anything like this made in the 21st century.
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