“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:
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 Caine, Jack 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
- 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. ↩