The Day Of The Jackal meticulously tracks an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle
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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Olympus Has Fallen has us pondering better films about terrorism.
The Day Of The Jackal (1973)
The international terrorist code-named “Carlos” was re-dubbed “Carlos The Jackal” by the press, after a reporter found a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 cloak-and-dagger novel, The Day Of The Jackal, in an apartment where Carlos had been staying. There’s some irony in that, because while Forsyth’s bestseller as well as Fred Zinnemann’s hit 1973 movie version strive for docu-realism, they’re still firmly within the realm of the high-toned spy thriller, featuring an antagonist with almost supervillain-like skills. The nickname alone lent the real Carlos The Jackal more cachet than he deserved.
But the Carlos connection is apt, too, because as the ruthlessly efficient adaptation—helped significantly by Kenneth Ross’ screenplay—reveals, Forsyth’s book charted one step in the evolution of global political conflict, from soldiers to guerrillas. Set mostly in France in the 1960s, The Day Of The Jackal stars Edward Fox as a mysterious Englishman known as “The Jackal,” hired by a secret society to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. Once rumors of the plot make their way to the French government, the police engage a master-sleuth played by Michael Lonsdale to learn The Jackal’s real identity, while trying not to alert Fox that he’s being pursued. There follows an anxious cross-country chase, complicated by uncertainty over how to pursue this new kind of criminal: one who’s sophisticated, connected, anonymous, and underground. (When told of The Jackal’s possible nationality, a British official muses, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a political killer in this country. It’s not our style, is it?”)
Zinnemann’s The Day Of The Jackal takes the form of a procedural, showing Fox and Lonsdale going about their business in long, detail-oriented, largely dialogue-free scenes. Both have the panache of fictional characters—especially Fox, who sleeps with his sources and uses disguises and gadgets to kill—but Zinnemann and Ross also emphasize the real-world implications of this emerging breed of rootless, amoral hired guns. In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, Fox practices with his specially engineered rifle (which has been built into a pair of crutches), and as he takes his shots at a practice melon, he keeps tweaking the aim. It all looks very cool, until Fox finishes his adjustments, and fires a bullet that makes this stand-in for de Gaulle’s head explode.
Availability: The Day Of The Jackal is available on DVD from Universal, and currently streaming on Netflix.