The Day of the Jackal

The Day of the Jackal ★★★★

Frederick Forsyth's earliest years certainly gave him plenty of experience and influences needed to form a career out of writing thriller novels, as he served as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force, wrote journalistic reports for the BBC regarding the Nigerian Civil War, and supposedly also served as a spy for MI6 that was sparked in investigating the people of Biafra further. Nearly two dozen books bear his name, all of them thoroughly researched and detailed in their history intertwining with fiction, but the one that usually gets brought up the most in discussing the man is The Day of the Jackal, using as a backboard the history of the paramilitary terrorist group OAS and the attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle, president of France. High praises for the novel meant a swiftly-produced adaptation, a film deserving of similar praise for being a subtle thriller where nary a moment is wasted in a simmering battle of the wits that retains a sense of authenticity throughout.

The Jackal himself manages to be the perfect type of villain who we don't need to know anymore of beyond his mission, able to exist without a true identity as he shifts from perfect gentlemen to coldhearted killer, depending on who compromises his job even by a minutia. The ultimate detached professional, Paul Duggan (or is it Charles Calthrop?) does not concern himself with alignment in politics or the individuals behind them, but rather operates a job while doing it well enough to be counted on for results, all without doing anything that could for even a moment draw attention to himself. Methodical in his precision, never flustered in his demeanor, the Jackal is too cool to be devoid of humanity that could otherwise describe his traits as a machine performing a routine series of tasks, and above all has an almost-consistently relaxed facade every time we check up on him, the perfect disguise for an assassin that doesn't want to come out of hiding. A lethal killer like Jackal's greatest weapon isn't the rifle he brandishes, but his quintessential Britishness that allows him to charm his way through the common people whilst leaving behind bodies in others' acts of dubiousness.

To catch a jackal becomes the job of the French detectives and generals, full of men unafraid to torture OAS agents yet generally able to come across as less amoral than our titular assassin. Commissioner Claude Lebel becomes the perfect man needed to try and outwit he Jackal, generally understating his role for his no-frills, straightforward attempts to link information to catch his man, supplied with only brains, skill, and a bit of luck to help him out. Both Jackal and Lebel are thus professionals working towards an opposite end result, one constantly ahead of the other, and as a result a great deal of suspense is generated as Lebel tries to uncover the enigma that is Jackal, unraveling fake passports and names to find a man that repeatedly disappears off the face of the planet while alternating between the calm Jackal's daily logistics and the frantic team under Lebel's wing trying to apprehend this man once and for all. Both like cats, both like mice, yet only one can pounce the second the clock timer that is de Gaulle's public reemergence completes its revolution.

Among the 70's many offerings for thrillers tied to sordid politics, The Day of the Jackal stands out for being the least paranoid, and perhaps is among the best in its economic details that waste no time stringing us to the Jackal's mission. Fred Zinnemann as a director assists by letting the script, actors, and sets do their work rather than provide any distracting stylizations, and in that regard the unpretentious feel of the film nearly approaches that of a rescued document of the described events, using no music unless the scene provides a way for it to be heard (like parades or radios) all while falling into place as a realistically weaved story. While a rather rushed brief epilogue almost sours the film in my eyes as it draws out, the remaining 140 minutes wash those feelings away with its technical brilliance and ability to keep its story going like a steam engine, propelling at a steady smooth rate no matter what. A marvelous work of sophisticated thrills that's stood the test of time even as the modern age would make the Jackal's disappearances a lot harder.

Part of Edith's Collab Film Club (and her profile)

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