Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Day of The Jackal Film Review

“I’m beginning to get a feeling about the Jackal…”

I recall a time when the summer was a time of rest. No more, I guess. Especially at this stage in life. Ah, to be a kid again. Today, we have our children’s lives to coördinate: summer camps, summer school, sleep-overs and their friends (the size of basketball players) coming by. That’s busy enough, even with our own hectic day jobs always in play. It’s all too hurried, if you ask me, and time only seems to move more quickly with each orbit of the sun. And now Labor Day is on the horizon. I’m too old for this sh…

With that in mind, it is time once more for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts in the series we started in the Spring of 2010. For this one, we break new ground as we examine the novel/film pairing of a famed, but fictional, political thriller. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a well-known novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at one of the most celebrated page-turners to hit the national bestseller list 40 years ago in 1971, The Day of The Jackal. The factually based source novel by Frederick Forsyth also served the 1973 film adaptation of the same name. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

A brief synopsis of the film: The voiceover at the beginning of the film provides the notable context:

“August 1962 was a stormy time for France. Many people felt that President Charles de Gaulle had betrayed the country by giving independence to Algeria. Extremists, mostly from the Army, swore to kill him in revenge. They banded together in an underground movement, and called themselves the OAS.”

The OAS try to assassinate the French leader. And fail. The government’s ruthless reaction to the attempt takes a toll on the cadre as they’ve captured, tortured, and killed a number in their efforts to prevent any such political execution. By late Spring 1963, the group in tatters, the remaining OAS leadership has devised a daring plan to attain their goal. Since their organization is filled with government informers and spies, they’ll go outside of it to find a killer. They’ll use a supremely skilled professional foreign assassin to remove de Gaulle from power for them. The Englishman they select, his masterly preparation, and execution of that plan, along with the French directorate’s attempts to parry (with an ensuing manhunt) and prevent such an assassination, is the crux of this thriller.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“Remember, Commissioner, you have full powers in this investigation, and the resources of every department represented here are entirely at your disposal. My instructions are simply: no publicity, and do not fail.”

Author Frederick Forsyth’s first published book represented a breakthrough work when it arrived in June of 1971. Though the form existed (sparsely) before this, this novel opened the floodgates for more “assassination plots'” in fiction writing, which subsequently exploded on bookstands that decade and beyond. And it instantly became the hot property for movie producers in the early ’70s to refashion into film.

It’s my belief that this initial adaptation of The Day of The Jackal remains one of the best ever filmed for what it achieved in screen suspense, realism, and the modernizing of the political thriller genre. For whatever reason, the conversion into a motion picture didn’t garner the same initial following as the novel and was considered a box office failure, at the time. Only years later did audiences realize how superb and ‘best in class’ it truly was. Credit for that must surely go to director Fred Zinneman, screenwriter Kenneth Ross, and the mostly unknown (at that time) cast that brought it all off.

The plotting of this film follows the meticulous preparations by the nameless assassin (codenamed the Jackal to protect his identity from government infiltrators) as he readies himself for what will be his final job. The anonymous assassin carries out the plan and deploys all of his contingencies to get him close to his target — as we all suspect he will. The rifle he’s had engineered for the task has a singular purpose. It’s lean and as scant as it is lethal. Comparatively, the ministry’s endeavors border on the frenzied as the entrenched but flustered civil authority scurry to discover the gunman’s identity in its search and destroy mission.

The Day of The Jackal, the novel, was almost a “how-to” piece for the author’s distinct writing style — one that broke molds and for which authors, like Tom Clancy, would emulate years later, IMO. The amount of information provided, you could say it was almost a template, for going about and planning a select high-profile execution likely made various world governments more than a little nervous on its release.

Its setting in 1963 — President Kennedy’s assassination was only eight years prior, in fact, was mentioned in the work — added to the roughly voyeur fascination readers had with the what-if story. The detail and density put forward in the source material was the paramount obstacle filmmakers faced in adapting it, though. How to be true to a popular #1 bestseller and still entertain an audience without putting them to sleep with the many facts and whatnot Forsyth utilized in his tale was what they had to overcome.

Given the approach Fred Zinneman took in this endeavor, no doubt helped by the era of this production, its treatment paid dividends, in the long run. It’s almost documentary style carried the storyline with a conveyed sense of realism, and yet still managed to build an ever-increasing sense of anticipation as it marched to the August date in the narrative. Its strength is the plot, even if we know the assassin and target eventually meet, along with the outcome.

Re-watching the film, all these years later, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how similar in tenor it is with William Friedkin and his crime classic The French Connection feature out that same year. Ironically, there is a connection beyond the neo-realist method the two filmmakers used in their separate movie productions. Besides the fact that real-life and fictionalized stand-in characters are sprinkled in both screenplays, The French Connection‘s drug smuggler villain, his actual counterpart, did have an indirect link to the central historical figure in The Day of The Jackal1.

Still, Zinneman may have had a more formidable challenge between the two in bringing this adaptation in. There were millions of built-in readers the production was vying for as a potential audience. Wisely, Zinneman opted for the same serious tone of the book, helped enormously by Kenneth Ross’ adept abridgment of the material in his screenplay. Just about every key plot point was skillfully maintained, and with almost the same lethal elegance of Forsyth’s English assassin, I might add.

Nothing extra was wasted in their collaboration to pull this thriller off. In contrast years later, all such niceties were thrown to the wind when studios revisited the novel. Seemingly, filmmakers diametrically opposed Fred Zinneman’s take with the 1997 remake. That film clearly was the original’s antithesis. One, in my opinion, that was so bad in its outlandish excesses, and casting decisions, that it’s almost the poster child of what not to do for an adaptation of a known work. Per IMDB, author Forsyth “… insisted his name be taken off the credits of this film”. It’s in the “so bad it’s entertaining” category for the mess and familiar plot-points that resulted. And that’s a left-handed compliment, if there ever was one, but I digress…

The Austrian-American director Zinneman made another beneficial decision, though, one he later conceded may have led to poor box office results. He refrained from using big-name actors for the major roles (Michael CaineJack Nicholson, and Roger Moore were in the running) and went with a number of unknowns at the time. Chief among them was the splendid Edward Fox as the mysterious assassin, which turned out to be his star-making break.

As well, his pick for the death-dealer’s nemesis was as clever for the brilliant detective deputy commissioner Claude Lebel. The bilingual character actor Michael Lonsdale fit the role almost to a tee. He’d even graduate to be a OO7 villain, later. In hindsight, both were perfect for their roles — though paradoxically, each were opposite heights to their book characters — Lonsdale in particular literally towers over many in the film. Add in a young Derek Jacobi, the underrated Alan Badel and a host of good but time-worn British and French actors and you had an accomplished cast. Just not one well-known outside of Europe.

Minister: “There is one thing: how did you know whose telephone to tap?”
Lebel: “I didn’t, so I tapped all of them.”

The film blended all of that, along with a deft mix of some ’60s-styled production values, beguiling European location work, and a touch of the distinct and dour outlook that was ’70s cinema. It’s enough to make you scratch your head today at why the film didn’t succeed upon its release. Those that saw the film at the onset found themselves pulling or identifying with either the assassin or the beleaguered manhunter in their opposing quests that had President de Gaulle at the center.

I have to admit when I first saw The Day of The Jackal in 1973, after reading the book the year before in high school, I found myself drawn to the assassin regardless of politics — no surprise given the killer’s cool manner, good looks…and attraction to the opposite sex…and my rebellious youth at the time.

Yet, when I screened the film once again for this review, I found my older self now identifying with the rumbled and overworked Lebel. Age changes things, I guess. Since he was stuck within a bureaucracy that would surely dismiss him for his lowly status at minimum, and do worst to and by him if he failed at catching his game, the old detective would find today’s landscape very familiar. Hence, the reason I now side with him.

Since real history wasn’t threatened by the movie’s outcome (Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t safely get to revise the Gallic olden days till 2009), the surprise and suspense remains with the story’s journey and the race to an appointed time for all the quarries and hunters presented. Even the Jackal gets to let loose a bullet toward the famed head of France…just because he misses was beside the point. Nevertheless, if a 38-year old film can still alter and refashion a fresh look at what I’m seeing, it says something positive to what the filmmakers accomplished almost four decades ago.

“But if the Jackal wasn’t Calthrop, then who the hell was he?”

Parallel Post Series

  1. After the American drug bust, Jean Jehan (the basis for Alain Charnier) received little in real punishment when arrested in France, later. Many now surmise it was due to his military service with the same Charles de Gaulle that afforded him leniency. 

16 Responses to “The Day of The Jackal Film Review”

  1. rtm

    WOW, this uncanny! Great minds think alike eh Michael, I just saw your comment on Ted’s remake post. We even use the same poster, it’s a good one, isn’t it?

    I’m really curious about this one now, there is no way I’d see the remake, it looks awful even from the trailer. Not even Bruce Willis can save that one even though generally I like him.

    Oh and speaking of Michael Lonsdale, I LOVE him as Drax in Moonraker (silly movie but I enjoyed it), he’s one of my top five fave Bond villains I posted a while ago.

    Well done, Michael.


    • le0pard13

      Yeah, I was happily surprised when my subscription pinged me that day with Ted’s remake movie guest post on your blog. Too cool… and a little eerie ;-). And yes, that’s the best poster for that film. It’s a great graphic.

      The original film is very much worth seeing, Ruth. I like Bruce Willis, too, but ‘The Jackal’ was one of his that he literally slept-walked through. One of these days I hope the studio will remaster ‘The Day of the Jackal’ in high def (believe it or not, the horrible remake is the only one available on Blu-ray Disc). And, I’m very much with you regarding Michael Lonsdale and his villain role in ‘Moonraker’ — he’s the best thing in that silly OO7 film.

      Thanks very much, Ruth.


  2. Ted S.

    What a great and in dept review of the film Michael, I love this movie and I wish the remake never existed. I remember I was so excited to see the remake back in the late 90s after I saw the trailer. I thought with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, it can’t be that bad right? Then a few months before the film opened, the author of the novel and the director of the original film were not happy with the new film. Then the film finally opened and critics tore it to pieces, yet I still hoped it would be just a fun action movie. Boy was I wrong, I hated every minute of it, I wanted my money back. Thankfully the remake also was a box office failure but because it was so bad, it deserved it.

    I’m surprised the original wasn’t a box office hit when it came out, thankfully it’s considered a classic now.


    • le0pard13

      Welcome, Ted! We’re in total agreement regarding the original film and the remake that never should have been made. Although, I once thought with a budding director like Michael Caton-Jones at the helm (‘Rob Roy’ is one of my all-time faves) it couldn’t be all that bad. I was wrong. And yes, it’s surprising TDoTJ didn’t do as well initially at the box office back then. The filmmakers did a superb job with its adaptation film. Not many can lay that claim. Thank you very much for the kind words and for stopping by. And your remake film piece made for great reading and thought.


  3. Rachel

    I did notice that we both thought of Clancy. Great minds and all… 🙂

    I like your comments on the challenge of the adaptation. I found it to be a very faithful adaptation but, sadly for me (and Jeff:), not a compelling adaptation. The book is so dense, and instead of sticking with a particular thread, the choice was to throw in as much as possible. Had I not read the book much of the movie would have gone over my head and not in a good way. I don’t mind a clever film that takes some brainpower to get through but the events in the movie were too often presented as small snippets you had to just accept rather than understand how they followed from previous scenes. For example, there was no clear mention of the border searches for “tall, fair” men of a certain age. You get to that scene and while it’s easy to understand why something like that would be happening it’s not necessarily clear that it follows from the good detective work of the French. I also found the end to be a take-on-faith set of scenes. The establishing shots really over-shadowed the work that Lebel was doing as the last and final (desperate?) bit of detective work to follow a search to its conclusion.

    I did really like the quick and natural looks at clocks and the calendars on display in all the scenes. Without being cumbersome, it really kept the feel of the days marching on and being recorded. Actually, I found the set design and decoration quite impressive overall.

    Question: Any thoughts on why the director made the baroness seem so uninterested in the Jackal but most willing to let him in the door? That choice completely confused me.

    And even if the adaptation didn’t capture the tension of the book’s second half for me I am still in complete agreement with how useless the 1997 adaptation was. My gosh!!! I might have some complaints on the original but at least it was a good movie.

    I agree with the casting, btw. Very well done on the principles. They didn’t necessarily match what I had in my head but I think they were able to execute their parts quite well. The surrounding cast I didn’t like as much. They all looked the same! Same build, same age, same features… I couldn’t tell any of them apart.

    “The film blended all of that, along with a deft mix of some 60s-styled production values, beguiling European location work, and a touch of the distinct and dour outlook that was 70s film.”

    So true and I remember saying this (with less style and a simpler vocab) while I was watching the movie.

    Here’s an interesting twist: as you saw in my book review I couldn’t help pulling for the Jackal. However, in the film, I was 100% behind Lebel!

    I was quite a fan of the end and it turning out that the Jackal was not Calthrop. Sneaky little bit of info thrown in and fun to think about.

    I know I mentioned this with the book too but I liked the historical aspect of the story. Something as simple as the absence of a digital database completely changes the game. Watching all the hotel registration cards pour in makes you appreciate just how hard everyone was working.

    Much like with the book, the novelty and import of the style is lost on me. Well, not lost exactly but its innovation is not exactly able to wow me like I think it would have had I been able to be there at the start.


  4. le0pard13

    Hmm… I thought the baroness seemed interested enough, given her station and the era. As well, she had to keep things quiet with others around (hotel staff, etc.). It came down to decorum given her rank. Of course, the later interview of the staff by Lebel and a maid saying she could tell she wasn’t alone by the telltale bed linen overturned that cart.

    “The surrounding cast I didn’t like as much. They all looked the same! Same build, same age, same features… I couldn’t tell any of them apart.”

    It’s true what you say about the surrounding cast. But, that may have been intentional, at least for those on the sides of the British and French bureaucracies. The worn, nameless faces could have represented the cogs, so to speak, in the soulless machine. But, that could be the old revolutionary in me talking ;-).

    Interesting that you split between the Jackal and Lebel in the different story mediums. What made you change via the movie? The actors or their parts as written for the movie? I was still pulling for the Jackal back in the 70s in both the book and film — naturally, that changed over time for me. We are on the same plane with that ending, though. Awesome bit of mind play by Forsyth.

    Great to hear your thoughts about it all on this comment, Rachel. Thanks for that and letting me pick this one. What’s next?


    • Rachel

      Great explanation on the surrounding cast. Cogs in the wheel is all we are… 🙂

      I’ve been thinking of my Jackal/Lebel switch and I do think it’s because of the acting. I think Michael Lonsdale is a better Lebel than Edward Fox is a Jackal. They were both different from what I had pictured but Lonsdale, for me, was a Lebel interpretation that I could still like very much. Fox as the Jackal (hehe, a fox as a jackal) was merely serviceable.

      Looking forward to teeing up THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.


      • le0pard13

        Valid point that Lonsdale’s Lebel was more personable than Edward Fox’s take with the enigmatic Jackal. Although, Fox did give him a ‘presence’. Mr. Fox does get to show his ‘character’ chops with later fare like ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘Force Ten From Navarone’, ‘The Mirror Cracked’ and others.

        And yes, looking forward to tackling The Hunt for Red October. While I’ve done the film many times, it’ll be good to re-read the book that put Clancy on the map. BTW, it’ll generate a TMT, too ;-).

        Thanks, Rachel.


  5. Ronan

    Excellent review Michael, of a film that which genuinely thrilling. I like the tone and the mood created in those 70s era thrillers. Watching that trailer it’s clear to see the influence films like Day of the Jackal and The French Connection have had on the new, grittier and more intelligent spy films of recent years. Paul greengrass’ treatment of the 2nd two Bourne films comes to mind, I love the aesthetic of authenticity he establises. Thank you for this Michael.


    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Ronan. The 70s era thrillers have had a far-reaching influence. Kudos for citing director Greengrass’ sequels in the Bourne series here. They are indeed apt examples. Thank you very much for your comment, my friend.


  6. 70srichard

    Very nice review, I’m not sure why I did not see this before except that it is in the archives before I started visiting your site. The neo-realism point comparing the French Connection is one that I’d not thought of before. I have not read any Tom Clancy although I am familiar with the style that so many are drawn to in his work, I never made that connection before either. Since it is an unexpected wave trend, I’m willing to jump on it, here is a link to my post, it is the second film I ever covered for my projects.

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      Many thanks for the comment and sharing your review of the film., Richard Glad you pointed it out. Love reading others reactions to this film.



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