Considering that we never learn more about the leading character than what he does for a living, considering that we know beforehand that the assassination attempt at the center of the plot will not be successful, and considering that the running time sprawls to nearly two and a half hours, it’s amazing The Day of the Jackal is so exciting to watch. Based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth and directed with restraint and sophistication by the venerable Fred Zinnemann, a four-time Oscar winner, the picture depicts a fictional attempt on the life of French president Charles de Gaulle.
Circa the early ’60s, a cabal of disenfranchised Frenchmen who are opposed to de Gualle’s policies realize he is too heavily guarded for an outright terrorist attack to succeed. Taking a fresh tack, the conspirators hire an English hit man known only by his codename, “The Jackal” (Edward Fox). He takes the job for $1 million, then ensures his own security by stating that he won’t share any information with his employers about how or when the murder will take place. Thereafter, the picture presents, in painstaking detail, the process by which the Jackal acquires false identification papers, special weaponry, and a vantage point he can use as a sniper post while de Gualle attends a major public rally.
Meanwhile, an informant in the conspirators’ organization tells authorities an assassin has been hired, so a resourceful French detective, Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), is assigned to prevent the killing even though the police have no data regarding the Jackal’s identity or strategy.
Shooting at wonderfully mundane locations throughout Europe, and almost completely eschewing musical scoring, Zinnemman creates such palpable realism that the movie often feels like a documentary. Whether he’s showing the Jackal coldly practicing with his custom-made rifle or showing Lebel’s team sorting through border-crossing records for clues, Zimmemann observes the story from a clinical distance, allowing us to see the day-to-day procedures of two very different worlds.
In the Jackal scenes, Fox is a seemingly emotionless operator, bringing the same intense patience to the task of seducing an attractive woman that he brings to the task of smuggling his gun across the French border. We catch glimpses of his twisted humanity, as in a key moment when he ignores warning signs telling him to abort his mission, but he remains a fascinating enigma, as mysterious to us as he is to his pursuers. In the Lebel scenes, Lonsdale is a wonderfully sobering presence, a relentless perfectionist who will try anything, even bugging the offices of government officials, to advance his investigation. (A young Derek Jacobi plays Lebel’s coolly efficient assistant.) The story climaxes in a trite action-movie finale, but nearly every scene prior to the ending radiates credibility and intelligence, and the tension never lapses.
The Day of the Jackal: RIGHT ON