Year Released: 1973
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig, Derek Jacobi
(PG, 142 min.)
Genre: Classics, Drama, Mystery and Suspense
“This is a once in a lifetime job. Whoever does it can never work again.” – The Jackal
This classic 1973 thriller is not be be missed. Unlike the action-only thrillers we see nowadays, this fine film executes everything with the same precision and expertise of the Jackal himself.
Maybe you saw the 1997 remake, The Jackal, with Bruce Willis. Not a bad film, but like most remakes, inferior to the original. You must see the original directed by the same man who brought us High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinnemann.
I’ll quote the inestimable Roger Ebert here to get us going:
“The Day of the Jackal” is one hell of an exciting movie. I wasn’t prepared for how good it really is: it’s not just a suspense classic, but a beautifully executed example of filmmaking. It’s put together like a fine watch. The screenplay meticulously assembles an incredible array of material, and then Zinnemann choreographs it so that the story--complicated as it is--unfolds in almost documentary starkness.
The “jackal” of the title is the code name for a man who may (or may not) be a British citizen specializing in professional assassinations. He allegedly killed Trujillo of the Dominican Republic in 1961 and, now, two years later, he has been hired by a group of Frenchmen who want de Gaulle assassinated.
Basically the film is a cat and mouse game between the anonymous assassin and the avuncular French detective who is tasked with going after him. Both men, foils for each other, anchor the film.
The relatively unknown Edward Fox is perfect for the role. As other critics have noted, his relative anonymity – especially to American audiences – mirrors that of the Jackal himself and thus makes Fox a perfect fit. Adam Zanzie has called the Jackal “one of the most interesting antiheroes ever to lead a Hollywood film.” He is certainly not a cardboard villain, and in his first scene he is appealing in his utter frankness with the men hiring him:
The Jackal: You see, gentlemen, not only have your own efforts failed, but you've rather queered the pitch for everyone else.
Casson: How dare you suggest that?
The Jackal: In this work you simply can't afford to be emotional. That's why you've made so many mistakes.
Col. Rodin: But if we decided to employ a professional...
The Jackal: You have to employ a professional. Your organization is so riddled with informants that nothing you decide is a secret for long.
And as he himself implies, the Jackal is certainly not emotional, although he can lay on the charm when he needs to, especially when he is on the run. He is, in turn, a debonair smooth talker who seduces Madame de Montpellier (Daphne Seyring) in order to secure a hideout at her estate, an unassuming schoolteacher traveling by train, and a gay gourmet who picks up a mate at the Turkish baths. and finally, a decorated and disabled war veteran, coaxing his way past a police blockade. All of which make his ruthless outbursts of violence unexpected and unnerving. We, too, the audience, against our better judgment, have almost been taken in by his charm.
The Jackal’s Nemesis, Detective Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is, on the surface, everything the Jackal is not. He is a happily married if not a bit henpecked husband, and perhaps most tranquil when feeding his pigeons in their backyard enclosure. Unlike the sartorial perfection of our impeccably dressed assassin, who is almost never without his ascot, Lebel is a little frumpy and wrinkled, perhaps a French version of American’s Lieutenant Columbo. He is reluctant to take on this mission, but once assigned, he is relentless. Perhaps one of his best scenes is when Detective Lebel realizes the importance of his role in a conversation with his able assistant, Caron, played by a very young Derek Jacobi:
Caron: You know, sir, what they’ll do to you if you don’t catch this man in time?
Lebel: I’ve been given a job, so we’ll just have to do it.
Caron: But no crime has been committed yet, so where are we supposed to start looking for the criminal?
Lebel: We start by recognizing that, after de Gaulle, we are the two most powerful people in France.
In another sign of his relentlessness, showing a bit of the same ruthless imagination the Jackal employs, Lebel roots out someone in the French ministry giving away their plans.
He plays a recording showing which minister is doing the leaking, although in his case, the leak is inadvertent. It is the beautiful young French woman sharing the married man’s bed who is airing their plans. When asked how he knew which phones to tap, Lebel replies without missing a beat.
“I didn’t. So I tapped all of them.”
The final climactic confrontation between Lebel and the Jackal will not disappoint. This is a film that combines patient and plodding detective work with action and unexpected brutality on both sides. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, but engage your mind as well, a characteristic all too rare in current Hollywood.
Go back in time to see this classic, though it may spoil your taste for the mostly mediocre fare we see today. Like going from a fine French vintage back to box wine. It will never taste the same again.
Yes, he is suave and charming, but the Jackal is also a cold-blooded killer who strikes with bold swiftness when he is threatened. Given the trail of blood he leaves behind in his efforts to assassinate General Charles de Gaulle, what is more appropriate than a Bloody May, which has French as well as American origins?
We can thank the Americans who brought over canned tomato juice to Paris, as well as the Harry’s Bar bartender, Ferdinand “Pete” Petiot, for the Bloody Mary. Petiot found Russian vodka tasteless, and decided to mix this newfound tomato juice with the spirit, along with some spices. The drink was originally christened “Bucket of Blood,” then “Red Snapper,” until it got its current name, in a vague nod to Mary Tudor of England and Ireland, infamous for her violent (and “bloody”) leadership. –Lauren Paley
French Bloody Mary
• 1 oz. vodka
• 2 oz. tomato juice
• lemon juice
• black pepper
• cayenne pepper
• Worcestershire sauce
• lemon wedge and celery stalk
Directions: Combine the vodka and tomato juice in a shaker, then add a dash of lemon juice, salt, black pepper, cayenne, and Worcestershire sauce. Shake. Once strained, garnish the cocktail with a lemon wedge and celery stick.