September 23, 2018
Street Date 9/25/18;
Stars Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig.
When Fred Zinnemann agreed to direct The Day of the Jackal practically on the spot in 1972, he hadn’t made a movie since A Man for All Seasons took home a half-dozen of the ’66 Oscars, including one for best picture. Part of this was due to MGM chief James Aubrey (aka “The Smiling Cobra”) canceling the proposed late-’60s screen version of Man’s Fate days before Zinnemann was ready to roll cameras, apparently operating on the studio’s then guiding premise that what the culture and exhibitors (not always the same) really needed was a fresh influx of George Kennedy movies.
Even at the time I felt the time-gap loss because Zinnemann remains one of those filmmakers I always go to (like, say, Carl Dreyer in a different cinematic universe) when I feel like jettisoning all nonsense and simply watch a movie made by someone who really knew where and how the big kids played. I remember coming out of Jackal back in ’73 with my late friend Burt, a seen-them-all expert who tolerated no movie fools and knew more about world cinema than anyone in my personal experience (as well as music, including classical, baseball and college basketball). He turned to me and said, “Now, that was a pro job.”
Which it is — and even more of one than I realized at the time. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s No. 1 bestseller, which by no means guaranteed any surefire box office follow-through, Jackal is a work of fiction dealing with a paid assassin’s attempted 1962 assassination of French president Charles De Gaulle, who at the time had a lot of very real right-wing OAS enemies (that would be Organisation armée secrète) who were livid at his having granted independence to Algeria (you could have a long night but rewarding evening by pairing this movie with Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers). The movie’s main challenge, which is always noted (as it was by Zinnemann) was built-in: How do you build suspense (and over 143 minutes, as it turned out) in a story whose outcome was known from the get-go because De Gaulle lived until a blood vessel unexpectedly ruptured and killed him in 1970?
What’s more, the picture is by nature something of a cold cookie — a complete “procedural” that not only deals with the POV of the brazen assailant (Edward Fox) but the equally clinical ones of other parties. These would be the OAS villains behind the Jackal’s hiring and then the police and military charged with tracking down enough advance clues to nip him before he can complete his task. An outstanding screenplay by Kenneth Ross delineates a lot of complex material in ways that always keeps us up to snuff on what we’re seeing, and without any fuss: even the story’s one sexual byway is bereft of any emotion. Crucially, though, it still keeps us involved in lull-less fashion because scenes communicate precisely what they must, and then we’re off to another dimension of the story. Not surprisingly, the film’s one Oscar nomination (’73 was a super-competitive year, with a lot of movies as good or better than Oscar winner The Sting) was for editing. But so much of the film’s effectiveness had to do with Zinnemann’s dexterity when it came to telling a story and (as I really noticed here) where to place the camera. As my friend Burt also used to say of favored filmmakers: “They know where the eye wants to go.”
The then all but unknown Fox got cast after Zinnemann caught the actor’s small role in The Go-Between, another superlative film from the era, and one that has never even gotten a DVD release in this country. Working against contrary sentiments from distributor Universal, the director wanted an unknown because the (assassin) “Jackal” character has been hired as an outsider — he’s an Englishman, in fact! — because a Frenchman would be smack inside the channel of well-known homegrown suspects. In addition, this particular Englishman has the kind of personality that enables him to blend into the everyday woodwork, above and beyond the fact that he’s of an above-average master of disguises. Matter of fact, Fox’s Jackal seems to be something of an impromptu handyman all around: presto painter of stolen cars, assembler of rifles, a mole when it comes to improvising hiding places and so on. You almost get the sense that if he could find a good career fair (did they even have career fairs in 1962 France or anywhere else?), he could have found constructive employment. Of course, the guy is, at minimum, a sociopath (albeit one without occasional surface charm), which might cut down on his referral rating.
The picture is huge on verisimilitude, due in part the staggering number of locations to which Zinnemann gained access in an array of cities and countries — some of these due to a connected and/or persuasive member of the production staff; there’s a long list of these on the film’s Wikipedia page, and that sound you heard was of maybe three to four choking horses. Another thing that puts this very handsome-looking movie over is a cast chosen for role suitability over automatic star power; fans of foreign films will immediately recognize (if not by name, certainly face) Michael Lonsdale, who is terrifically good as the chief sleuth; Delphine Seyrig, Alan Badel, Cyril Cusack, Derek Jacobi (looking really young), Jean Sorel, Philippe Leotard and more. I’m trying to wrap my mind around 2018 audiences embracing a movie — and Jackal was a hit — that was both politically sophisticated and headlined by this kind of international cast. Of course, they’d have to give up Spider-Man Meets Silverfish or its ilk for a night.
I don’t see as many Arrow releases as I should or as I’d like, but Jackal follows The Big Knife and The Apartment in terms of my personal viewing as being a first-rate release — and one that’s very easy on the eye, as transfers go. There are a couple short promotional vignettes from ’72 — always good to see Zinnemann talking on camera — but the main bonus is an interview with personable Neil Sinyard, author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience. This is a director who was sometimes dissed as a non-auteur, but Sinyard does make the point where this is another Zinnemann picture — though for the first time, the protagonist is reprehensible — to deal with an individual standing up against some kind of power structure or, say, “system.” And the other examples were not mere assignments (though Zinnemann didn’t take on many or any of these after 1951) but four of his signature movies: High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Nun’s Story and A Man for All Seasons.
In 1997, Universal released a very loose riff (remake would be too generous) called The Jackal with Bruce Willis. It was released eight months after Zinnemann’s death, but he apparently had enough left during the newer film’s production or at least announcement to wear a clothespin on his nose. Despite a current 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating, it was an even better performer at the box office, but your hearing would have to be as good as Ted Williams’ eyesight to pick up any blip it has made on film history. Zinnemann’s original, though, is the real deal, and if it’s that chilly, why was I able to devour it in just two sittings when the current political news gets all my time these days?