‘The Day of the Jackal’: Startling, Elegant and Simple

'Day of the Jackal' Polish language poster: far superior to the American release.

That’s right: give away the ending. ‘Day of the Jackal’ Polish language poster.

Fred Zinnemann’s “The Day of the Jackal” (Warwick Film Productions/Universal Productions France, 1973) is just about the classiest suspense thriller ever made, and also one of the strangest. It concerns a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle in 1962: we know (or at least we knew in 1973) that de Gaulle was not assassinated, so we know how it ends before it begins. Zinnemann himself wasn’t sure if audiences would sit still for this. The picture was well received, but it failed to find a large audience. It pulled in just over sixteen million dollars — one tenth of the amount earned by that year’s winner of the Best Picture Oscar, “The Sting,” and less than one tenth of 1973’s top-grosser (in every sense of the word), “The Exorcist.”

Even odder than the oxymoronic concept of a suspense picture built on a foregone conclusion is the moral ambiguity of the story. To be sure, moral ambiguity had long been a staple of film noir, but in those pictures, the ambiguity came from the absence of anyone you could whole-heartedly root for, and from the lack of a clear sense of good and evil. In “Jackal,” good and evil is as clear-cut as in a classic Western, yet you find yourself rooting for the good guys and the bad guy.  “The Day of the Jackal” is like playing chess against yourself: you can’t lose.

Even as the number of his murders begins to add up, the Jackal is so suave, charming and attractive, you long to see him succeed. Edward Fox, who plays the Jackal, spoke about the acting challenge in a Q&A after a recent screening of the picture: “You’ve got to make a totally immoral man — totally greedy, ruthless, brutal man —, but you’ve got to make him likeable. Otherwise the audience don’t want to go and watch him in the film. You know, it’s a funny old theatrical ingredient — you’ve even got to feel quite sorry for him in the end that he missed.” In this and in all other respects, I’d say Fox succeeds completely; I can’t think of another actor who could have come close.

Another oddity is this: Edward Fox is the possessor of one of the most distinctive and attractive voices in the English speaking world, yet he has very little to say in the picture. But far from being a source of disappointment and frustration, it only makes the Jackal more alluring. Here’s the scene when we meet the Jackal as he is being interviewed by the OAS, a right-wing terrorist organization in the market for a professional assassin. Fox rarely says as much in any other scene. That’s the marvellous Eric Porter as Col. Rodin, the leader of the OAS.

Ralph Kemplen’s editing was the picture’s only Oscar nomination. (He lost to William Reynolds for “The Sting.”) Edward Fox’s exit followed immediately by the bank explosion offers a good example of the dynamic editing. The picture is full of such skillful juxtapositions.

Edward Fox was not a major star when the picture was made; he didn’t become a major star afterwards. The men who financed the picture were anxious to hire a bigger name. All sorts of names were bruited about — Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, all the big stars of the day were asked to meet with Zinnemann — but after six months of wrangling, Zinnemann wouldn’t consider anyone but Fox. Fox explained it this way: “Well, Fred saw a film called ‘The Go-Between’ and in it, I had a line, which was to a young boy — the line was, ‘Nothing is ever a lady’s fault.’ And Fred said ‘Any actor who can make that believable has got my ticket.’ That was how I was cast.” Zinnemann had a lot of clout: he was a four time Oscar winner who hadn’t made a picture since 1966, when he won Best Director and Best Picture for “A Man for All Seasons.”

Zinnemann is often credited with a brilliant response to a stupid question from a studio executive. According to the legend, in the 1980s, during a meeting with a young Hollywood executive, Zinnemann was surprised to find the executive didn’t know who he was, despite his distinguished career. When the young executive asked Zinnemann to list some of his credits, Zinnemann replied, “You first.” In Hollywood, the story is known as “You First.” It’s a terrific story, but I must point out that Christopher Plummer, in his memoir, “In Spite of Myself” attributes a nearly identical story to Helen Hayes. (The passage is so funny, I’ve included a few extra paragraphs that are not entirely relevant, but are worth reading for their own sake.)

One young whippersnapper . . . armed with an overextended ego and no past, theatrical or otherwise, had the temerity to ask Helen Hayes to describe her long career. “Please, Miss Hayes,” he whimpered, “tell us what you’ve done?” “After you —” invited the great lady with a gracious smile.

Mildred Natwick, a much-respected character actress on both coasts, known for her quick wit, was being similarly interrogated by some other erstwhile executive. “And tell me, Miss Natwick, what have you done?” “About what?” replied Millie with a querulous look of wide-eyed innocence.

My friend, the rebellious old dog Ian Keith, had become quite used to these humiliating sessions. At one of them, a cheeky young director of little experience (over at Kraft Theatre) asked Ian the same worn-out standard — “And what have you done?”

Ian decided to have some fun: “I don’t believe you caught my name, sir.”

“No, sir, I didn’t.”

Picking one at random, Ian chose a celebrated classical actor from a distant past. At his most grandiloquent, relishing every syllable, Ian pronounced magisterially, “My name is Holbrook Blinn!”

None the wiser, the director barrelled on, “And what have you done, Mr. Blinn?”

“I’m dead, you son of a bitch,” Ian tossed over his shoulder as he swept from the room, unemployed, but triumphant!

Well, let me get back on course . . . Here are two other dialogue-heavy scenes for Fox, both with Cyril Cusak as the gunsmith. In the seven-minute appreciation of Fred Zinnemann that Vanessa Redgrave recorded for TCM, she suggested that Cusak was possibly never better than he was in “The Day of the Jackal.” I admire Cusak enormously — especially in the audio recording he made of “The Playboy of the Western World” — but I must agree with Redgrave: I don’t think he was ever better than in this small role. This was the first time I ever saw him; the performance stayed fresh in my mind throughout the two decades that passed before I saw the picture for the second time.

Here’s the Jackal’s first visit to Gozzi, the gunsmith, in Genoa. The tricky part for the maker of the rifle is that it must be able to be unscrewed and reassembled into a different everyday tool that will not arouse the suspicions of the police. The solution (which I will not spoil), ingenious then and ingenious now, would today almost certainly never be able to get past even the least reliable metal detector. At the time, however, it was startling, elegant and simple — a metaphor for the entire picture.

Here’s the follow up visit, when the Jackal collects the completed rifle:

And here’s the following scene, when the Jackal tries out il signor Gozzi’s handiwork.

The scene is highly representative of the entire picture. “The Day of the Jackal” is a procedural par excellence: it’s methodical, deliberate, remorseless — and it has an explosive finish. No matter how many times I see it, I never get tired of it. This goes for both the scene above and the picture as a whole.  One thing that is not adequately represented in any of the scenes I have selected is the beautiful location photography all through the picture. From the first shot to the last, “The Day of the Jackal” is a pleasure to look at — Fred Zinnemann was a master of location shooting, and this entire picture was shot on location: London, Paris, Genoa, the Côte d’Azur and at hotels, châteaux and train stations in between.

“The Day of the Jackal” is notable for the number of first rate actors in small parts. Whenever I look at it — as I often do — I can’t help thinking: “Yes, this is how you make a good picture: find yourself a good story, put the camera in the right place and then fill the screen with great actors in little parts.” Of course, if there were an infallible way of making a good picture, there would be no bad ones. But surely a good story, a good cameraman and great actors is a combination that shortens the odds. Yet this particular combination is very rare — and getting rarer, it appears to me. Nowadays, who even thinks about great acting? I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures from the early- to mid-70s over the past month, and the most striking thing they have in common is the number of first rate actors in small parts.

2 thoughts on “‘The Day of the Jackal’: Startling, Elegant and Simple

  1. Pingback: The Greatest (Part II) | The Claude Rains Fan Club

  2. Gregorio

    What an amazing poster. Never saw before. Perhaps one of the best movie posters I have ever seen. Superb finding and selection to iustrate a superb entry.

    The first paragraph is very well written. Excellent departing point.
    The second one almost as good.
    I love the detour about answers to the question “what have you done”

    I didn’t feel like watching any of the clips….yet it was equally delightful to read .
    the essay. One of my top favorite so far.


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