Day of the Jackal: Zinnemann’s Thriller about Plot to Execute De Gaulle

Based on F. Forsyth’s best-selling novel, The Day of the Jackal concerns the 1963 plot to assassinate the powerful French President Charles De Gaulle by a professional English killer, hired by OAS extremists.

The title refers to the code name of the designated assassin (well played by Edward Fox).

Unlike Costa-Gavras’ “Z,” the movie is based upon a single, fictional incident, rather than a series of complex historical and political facts. Technically, though, “Day of the Jackal” is a well-executed film from director Fred Zinnemann, but like most of his movies, it is competent without being exciting, continuously involving without being emotionally engaging.

One problem that works against this political thriller is that we know the end result, namely, that De Gaulle was NOT killed, thus the suspense of depend entirely on the process and details, namely how the assassination plot was planned, orchestrated with and through numerous players, and then failed. Known for his attention to detail and meticulous if unexciting craftsmanship, Zinnemann is the right director.

But you can’t help but think what a director of the older generation, such as Hitchcock or Don Siegel or Sam Peckinpah, or a member of the younger generation, such as Francis Ford Coppola (“The Conversation”), William Friedkin (The French Connection”) or Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”) would have done with the same text.

Most of the film consists of supporting roles and cameos, but the casting director who helped Zinnemann deserves praise for choosing some of the best British and French thespians working today, many of whom known for stage and TV work rather than cinema.

Watching the film is not exactly a spotting game because at least half of them are not recognizable names to American audiences. Even so,
Michael Lonsdale as a French detective who trails the killer down, always one or two steps behind, Delphine Seyrig, as a bored baroness whom the assassin encounters en route, Cyril Cusack as Gunsmith, Alan Badel as the Minister, Vernon Dobtcheff as the interrogator, and last but not least Adrien Cayla-Legrand, as the President De Gaulle himself (shown briefly and usually from a distance).

“Day of the Jackal” is one international (French-UK) production, in which the various nationalities and multiple accents so well orchestrated and coordinated that they don’t present an obstacle. That said, there’s a letdown feeling at the end, due to downbeat conclusion, which makes you feel you have just watched a competent but gimmicky film.

Remake

Stay away from a 1997 film, “The Jackal,” which is inferior to Zinnemann’s work in every department.

Oscar Alert

The film was deservedly nominated for the Best Editing Oscar by Ralph Kemplen.

Credits

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 142 minutes

Produced by John Woolf, David Deutsch and Julien Derode
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Kenneth Ross, based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth
Cinematography: Jean Tournier
Music: George Delerue
Editing: Ralph Kemplen