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Non-Review Review: The Day of the Jackal

The Day of the Jackal is a fascinating entry in the assassination subgenre, most impressive for the careful and meticulous way that it examines the unfolding events – it’s more of a procedural than a cat-and-mouse thriller. Indeed, it’s almost an hour into the film before the two detectives chasing the eponymous hit man appear on screen. Fred Zinnemann’s movie has a two-and-a-half hour runtime, but doesn’t rely on a shifting or twisting narrative to fill it. Instead, it simply allots the characters and the world that they inhabit a bit more room to breathe, to the point where The Day of the Jackal seems a great deal more human and personal than most assassination thrillers, as we get a sense of the people tied up in a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.

Tie a grey rope ’round the old… I’m not sure what type of tree that is…

There’s almost a sense of realism to The Day of the Jackal. Zinnemann convinces us that – were something like this to happen – it would unfold as we see it here. There’s no high-speed car chase, no witty one-liners, no secret societies. The work of the assassin isn’t glamourous or flamboyant. The police trying to catch him aren’t action heroes. Indeed, the one concession to standard thriller formula comes when the film conspires to place the pursuer and the pursued together in the same room. Given how natural everything else in the film seemed, it seemed quite likely that the Jackal and Commissioner Lebel might spend the entire movie without coming into contact with one another.

This isn’t some exciting fictional world where hired hit men seem to come a dime-a-dozen, or they are begging around exotic locales looking for work. We’re explicitly told that there’s hardly an excess of paid assassins wandering around Europe, despite what movies would have us believe. “All I found in Central Records was that in the 10 last years there’ve only been four contract killers in France. We’ve got three. The fourth is serving time in Africa somewhere.”

His first port of call…

When a character is hit with a machine gun, the force of the blast knocks them against the wall. The police don’t uncover the sinister plot through some clever esoteric clue that only our hero could understand – they do it by chasing miles and miles of paper work, crossing names off lists and processing vast amounts of data. Even our assassin doesn’t seem a kill-happy fellow. It’s forty-five minutes into the film before we see him kill a man, and his increasing bodycount in the second half of the film isn’t presented as part of his routine, but as a sign that things are desperately unravelling.

There’s an air of authenticity to the film, populated as it is by a variety of old veterans and soldiers who seem unable to deal with life outside of wartime. The plot to assassinate the President is spurred by the end of colonial France. The conspirator Volenski is a veteran of Indo-China and Nigeria. “We used a trick in the army to fake illness and get out of fatigue duty,” the counterfeiter tells the Jackal, outlining his own military past. This works for both sides, with Lebel making unofficial inquiries about the assassin through “the old boys’ network.”

The Jackal’s a Fox…

The film devotes considerable time and interest to the sheer mechanics of the plot to assassinate the French leader. There is tension and suspense, but the film seems most interested in the particulars of how such a plot would go about. Zinnemann suggests that political assassination is as much about organisation and planning as it is about proficiency with a weapon or capacity for brutality. We watch the villain procure his passports, buy his gun and even appropriate a nice apartment for the day in question. None of this is shown in a sensational sort of way. Instead, Zinnemann just shows us the nuts-and-bolts operation.

This does mean that we have a bit of difficulty investing with most of the characters, especially those tasked with foiling the Jackal. Everything feels so meticulously planned and organised that there’s no room for a human component. There are small touches that suggest Lebel is more than just a uniform and a moustache, but there’s nothing really specific about any of the characters caught up in this grand conspiracy. Then again, I suppose, that is the point. And it is part of what makes The Day of the Jackal such a fascinating watch.

He’d like a shot at that money…

And, to be fair, the Jackal himself seems like a surprisingly human character, much more than any of the people around him. It feels somewhat ironic since he’s the character who arrives without any back story or history or agenda or motivation beyond money. Of course, it’s a lot of money. When his employers protest his fee, he counters, “Considering you expect to get France in return, I’d have thought it a reasonable price.”

Edward Fox is great in the role, and the Jackal remains one of the best things about the film – a strangely human element at the heart of a consciously mechanical film. It’s hard to overstate just how influential Fox’s portrayal of the assassin was. It’s hard not to see hints of his performance in any number of movies about professional hit men in the years and decades that followed. Fox’s take on the character is compelling and fascinating – because it manages that rare feat of being both human and inhuman simultaneously, accomplished with a relatively small amount of dialogue and minimalistic performance. It’s no small accomplishment.

Going off-road…

As portrayed by Fox, the Jackal is an efficient and organised killing machine. However, he’s still strangely personable, even in relatively brief interactions, smiling and chuckling. He is cold and calculating, but also capable of masking so skilfully that the character’s occasional flashes of brutality still catch the audience off guard. He’s introduced to us as a man who kills for money, but Fox puts us remarkably at ease with him, to the point where we’re almost surprised at how efficient a killing machine he is.

Despite his calculated approach to the task at hand, there are hints that the Jackal is still human. Fox never lets his performance confirm one way or the other, but there are hints and suggestions in his actions. Was a brief dalliance in a hotel a pragmatic attempt to avoid detection? Or did it suggest some sense of passion and loneliness beneath his collected facade? He is capable of violence, but he’s not a monster.

They’ve got some gall going after de Gaulle…

The Jackal kills when necessary, and without hesitation – but he doesn’t kill without reason. He kills several characters who show him nothing but kindness, if only because he knows the potential damage that they could do. However, he steals the licence plates from two kissing teenagers without disturbing them, rather than murdering them and taking the car. There’s even the hint of a wry smirk on his face as he watches the young couple together in the woods, suggesting that he’s not entirely dispassionate.

The Day of the Jackal is a nice and stately look at an assassin and his assassination attempt on the French President. It’s more drama than thriller, but it’s still fascinating and a lot more thoughtful than most assassination films.

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