Tag Archives: Ian Keith

‘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.

An Acting Lesson from ‘Nightmare Alley’

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

Here’s a speech from “Nightmare Alley” that gives a fine example of how much an actor can bring to fairly humdrum material. This speech is spoken twice in the picture — the first time, by a fine actor named Ian Keith; the second time, by Tyrone Power, a fine movie star, but a dismal actor.

Keith plays an alcoholic carny, who was once a celebrated mentalist.  While reminiscing about his glory days, he goes into the act that made him famous.

Keith: Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages, certain men have looked into the polished crystal and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come, slowly shifting their form . . . visions come. Wait! The shifting shapes begin to clear. I see fields of grass and rolling hills and a boy. A boy is running barefoot through the hills. A dog is with him. A dog is with him.

Power: Yes. His name was Gyp. Go on.

Keith: See how easy it is to hook ’em? Stock reading: fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog. I’m just an old drunk, an old lush. Zeena’ll be mad.  Good old Zeena . . .

The material isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not great. It’s no better or worse than the patter from a hundred other phony psychics. But look at what Keith does with it.

Now have a look at Power’s version of the same speech, much later in the picture. Some words are different and Power’s version is a little more cumbersome, with some stuff at the end about a grey-haired mother waiting at a gate. He, therefore, has a little more to work with, but you’ll see that he casts nothing like Ian Keith’s magic spell. Not even close.  Yet the script has been at pains to make us understand that Power’s character is as effective a mentalist as Ian Keith’s was in his heyday.

The speech presents several interesting acting challenges. To draw the audience in, the actor must seem to be in earnest, even though, in both cases, we know that he’s a phony. Both actors do appear to be entirely sincere, but the effect could hardly be more dissimilar. Power takes many of the same pauses that Keith takes, emphasizes the same words . . . but to very little effect. What’s wrong?  Broadly speaking, it’s that Power’s version is too straight-forward, too matter-of-fact. The subtle variations in the writing make Power’s version more wordy and less poetic, but I don’t believe the writing is the main problem — his interpretation is. Listen to the way the two actors handle the line “Every boy has a dog.” Power says it like an anchorman reading the news; the line means what it means on the surface and nothing else.  Keith says it accusingly, almost hysterically, with an interesting rising inflection; the subtext is “What suckers they all are!” And listen to the extraordinary difference between Keith’s reading of “See how easy it is to hook ’em?” and Power’s. In Keith’s, the line is full of scorn, of hatred for the suckers who used to fall for his act — there’s a whole life in that one line. Power’s reading is simple bemusement bordering on apathy.  Keith pulls you in, then turns on you and laughs in your face. Power doesn’t pull you in, and doesn’t have the firepower to laugh in your face.

The repeated sentence (“A dog is with him. A dog is with him.”) presents a nice little technical challenge.  For a  good actor, it is axiomatic that repetitions must never be taken at face value.  It is never enough merely to say a line twice; the repetition must have more or different emphasis, richer subtext, carry new meaning, or justify its existence in some other, recognizable way. Ian Keith handles the repetition expertly:  the first time, it’s straight-forward description. The second time, he speaks more caressingly, as a hypnotist would; he puts more emphasis on “dog,” as if to suggest that the word has special meaning to him — or to his audience — and he elongates the “m” in the final word, “himmmm.”  His reading coaxes the response out of Power, who answers involuntarily, as if in a hypnotic trance.

There are other, less overt repetitions in the speech, as well. First, there is: “But visions come, slowly shifting their form . . . visions come.” This form of repetition, in which the beginning word or clause is repeated at the end of the sentence or phrase, is a time-honored figure of speech known as epanalepsis, but it’s only effective if the actor emphasizes it.  Then there is:  ” . . . rolling hills and a boy.  A boy is running barefoot through the hills.”  The repetition of an ending word or phrase at the beginning of the next sentence or clause is called anadiplosis. And one other thing to note:  “A boy is running barefoot through the hills” is in strict iambic pentameter; Ian Keith stresses the iambs, which gives the line wonderful rhythmic propulsion. These figures of speech and regular metrical beats don’t just happen:  they’re carefully planned, they give a speech structure and shape. It’s a bad mistake, a cardinal sin, not to put them to use — but first, an actor must find them. Then he must figure out what to do with them.  Ian Keith may or may not have known the technical names of these and other figures of speech, but he certainly makes good use of the devices. Tyrone Power glosses over them.

Keith came from the stage, and had played a lot of Shakespeare by the time he made this picture, so he knew the importance of rhetorical devices, and how to emphasize and caress words to achieve the greatest effect. Tyrone Power came from a famous theatrical family, but he never got the hang of heightened speech. This sort of acting requires great technical skill above and beyond natural talent; it’s a form of magic, similar to sleight-of-hand and misdirection. As with a magic trick, the audience knows that their eyes are deceiving them, but they shouldn’t be able to tell how the trick is accomplished. Ian Keith is a master magician; Tyrone Power, alas, is not.