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13 November 2016

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Directed by: Fred Zinneman
Starring: Edward Fox, Michel Lonsdale,
Tony Britton, Alan Badel, 
Olga Georges-Picot, Cyril Cusack
Adrian Cayla-Legrand, Eric Porter,
Delphine Seyrig, Jean Martin
When The Day of the Jackal first released in India, I was too young to watch the film. When it returned as a re-run, my father, who had been in France during the period in which the film is set, wanted to share the film with me. I don't know who was more disappointed when we weren't allowed in – the film was certified 'A', and I was still too young. (He ended up taking my brother and sister for it the next day.)

A couple of years later, I was rummaging through my father's bookshelves looking for something to read. My father travelled extensively for work, and usually brought back two bestsellers for himself each time (one on his flight out, one on his return flight), and a book apiece for each of his children. I had finished reading my book, and unable to wait any longer for my brother and sister to finish theirs, I decided to see if my father's book case held anything of interest. Just in my early teens, I'd recently graduated from Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse and Leslie Charteris to James Hadley Chase, Alistair McLean and Louis L'Amour. Among the Ludlums and Haileys, my eye was caught by the name, The Day of the Jackal. Hmm, Frederick Forsyth. I hadn't read him before, but I remembered the movie that I hadn't been allowed to watch. So I grabbed the book out of the bookcase and began to read. I ended up reading it in one sitting. (That isn't saying much – those days, I read most books in one stretch unless such inconvenient things such as my mother, school and chores interfered.)

Then, years later (I was in my final year of college), my brother borrowed The Day of the Jackal from the local video cassette library – a grainy, not-very-clear print, but I still remember how thrilling it was. Recently, my husband and I were discussing movies and this film came up in conversation. Both of us agreed that we had to watch the film again. No sooner said than done – S was online checking to see if Netflix had the film they did, and so the deed was done, as they say.

The DVD arrived on Friday, but it wasn't until Sunday night, when both of us were so disgusted with the way Gerald Durrell's Corfu trilogy was shaping up that we looked at each other and said simultaneously: S: "I can't see any more of this rubbish!" Me: "Let's watch 'The Day of the Jackal'."

So. Here we are.  

A bit of background: Year: 1962. Charles de Gaulle, who had come to power promising to keep the status quo, changed his mind and supported the secession of Algeria, signing the Évian Accords in 1962, and thus ending the French-Algerian War (1954-1962). To several ‘patriotic’ Frenchmen, this was an act of treason. Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, a lieutenant-colonel in the French air force, and his band of not-so-merry conspirators, attempted to assassinate President Charles De Gaulle in August 1962, opening machine gun fire on the President’s motorcade. Out of the more than 140 bullets fired (in seven seconds, a voiceover tells us in the movie), 14 were embedded in the President’s car, and one came within an inch of de Gaulle’s head. But the President (and his entourage) had a spectacular escape. ('Ils tirent comme des cochons,' the inimitable General is said to have said: 'They shoot like pigs!') Within six months, the conspirators were caught and tried, and Bastien-Thiry was executed by firing squad. (The last execution in France.)

The Day of the Jackal opens with the five-minute scene – very little background music, dialogue –  detailing the attempted assassination, and the subsequent execution.
1963. Bastien-Thiry’s second-in-command, Colonel Marc Rodin (Eric Porter), and a few of the other leaders have escaped to Vienna, where they live in exile. Their organisation is in tatters; what’s worse, the Organisation de l'armée secrete (OAS), a right-wing militant group, have not only failed in their attempt to assassinate de Gaulle at the École Militaire, but the covert operations section of the French secret service, infuriated by the audacity of the motorcade assault, has successfully infiltrated the OAS, and has succeeded in capturing its officers and neutralising its terrorist operations. The conspirators are a demoralised lot, but Col. Rodin has an idea: what if they hire a professional assassin, someone who is unknown to both the OAS and the French police and secret service?

The person Col. Rodin has picked is a British assassin, an unnamed man who is so unobtrusive that while a chain of recent assassinations have been considered his work, there’s been no evidence linking him to any of them. The man, code name Jackal (Edward Fox) – the only name they will know him by – states his terms. Half a million. Dollars, not francs. The men are aghast, but the Jackal is nonchalant. Given the magnitude of the task before him (he’ll have time for only one shot) and the fact that he won’t be able to work again, it's not a bad bargain: ‘Considering you expect to get France in return, I'd have thought it was a reasonable price.’ 
He has a few other terms – half the money has to be paid into his Swiss account in advance;  once that is credited, he will need two months to make his preparations; Col. Rodin and his deputies will move to a remote place where they will stay under guard; he will not be hurried, he gets to decide on the 'when'; and, he will contact them – he needs a telephone number in France. He also cautions the three men in the room that only they and he should know of this plot. If even one of them is captured, he reserves the right to call the deal off.

The conspirators move from Vienna to Rome, where they hole up on the top floor of a pension; the other floors are occupied by legionaries who will ostensibly protect them from being picked up by the French secret service. Col. Rodin order a series of armed bank robberies to raise the money needed to pay for the assassination.
Meanwhile, back in England, the Jackal begins his preparations for the biggest job of his life. He first applies for a legal British passport under a false name. He also steals a couple of passports from foreign tourists for future use. Then, using the legal 'new' passport, he travels to Brussels, where he meets a gunmaker recommended by a 'friend', and commissions a customised sniper rifle with a silencer. 
His next stop is Genoa where he commissions a set of fake identity papers, specific ones, and a driver’s license. He then travels to Paris where he reconnoitres the area for the most favourable spot for his job; once he spots it, he efficiently makes plans for entering the building later, at will. 
In Rome, his co-conspirators are not sitting idle. They have deposited his advance in his bank account, and laid their plans to plant a mole in the opposition’s ranks, one who will keep them informed about the movements of the police and intelligence services. Meanwhile, the Jackal, returning to pick up his fake papers, is blackmailed by the forger, leading to some interesting consequences.
The French intelligence service, which has gotten wind of the conspirators’ curious diffidence in stepping out of their residence in Rome, have been keeping them under close surveillance. The only man who goes out twice daily is a Victor Wolenski (Jean Martin). In a covert operation without the help or even knowledge of the Italian government, the 'Action Service' brings Wolenski back to France for questioning.
All that Colonel Roland of the secret service is able to decode from Wolenski's incoherent ramblings before he dies is the hint of an assassination plot and a name – Jackal.

Informed of the plot, the Minister for the Interior, M. Frey (Alan Badel) hurries to put the matter before his Premier. The President (Adrien Cayla-Legrand), notoriously unconcerned about his personal safety, refuses to make any change in his daily itinerary, but he charges M. Frey with finding the assassin and arresting him. The minister convenes a top-secret cabinet meeting with the heads of all the security forces. They have to keep the president safe despite himself. And… it has to be done quickly and with the utmost secrecy.

The Commissioner of Police decides that they cannot protect the president if they do not know who is going to assassinate him, or when. They have to find out who the Jackal is, and for that they need a detective. He has just the man in mind – his own deputy commissioner, Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale).
Lebel is given special (and over-arching) powers, and he also asks permission to conduct the investigation his way. Lebel and his special assistant then proceed to use the ‘old boys’ network’ calling the heads of foreign intelligence and secret services – ‘unofficially’ – to see if they can turn up the name of known political assassins. He hits pay dirt with Scotland Yard, who in conjunction with the British Special Intelligence Services comes up with a name – Charles Calthorp.  
A military intelligence officer has spotted a tenuous connection – the first three letters of Charles Calthorp's names forms ‘chacal’ – French for ‘jackal’.  Detective Inspector Thomas (Tony Britton) of the Scotland Yard is able to let Inspector Lebel know who to look for, but they soon realise that it may not be that easy – if Calthorp was in France, how is it that his passport is still in England? Inspector Thomas, who has been given almost unlimited power by his Premier to solve this case, decides to pursue the investigation further.
Meanwhile, the OAS mole is more than fulfilling her duty; she informs her handler that Wolenski has talked and the Jackal’s cover blown. The conspirators quickly pass the information on. The Jackal, who has now entered France – via Italy – has a choice: continue, knowing that the risks have doubled or, ditch the commission, and save his own skin. 

Inspector Thomas has had his men pull in all passport applications for the past three months, checking each name against death certificates, as opposed to birth certificates. His perspicacity pays off – they have a name: Paul Duggan. Soon Inspector Lebel has it too. However, the conspirators are getting all the information just as soon as the police get it, and the Jackal is able to keep one step ahead. 
Checking into a hotel close to the border, he discovers from his informant that the police are searching for 'Duggan'. Coolly, he seduces a woman, Collette de Montpelier (Delphine Seyrig), whom he meets at the hotel, and later, uses her home as hideout.­ She’s been questioned about him earlier, and when she tries to pump him for information, she becomes a danger to him – and, the Jackal cannot afford to be in danger.
Inspector Lebel is thrilled now that the gloves are off. The secrecy that so hampered his investigation is no longer a concern, and he has the security forces (all departments) launch an open manhunt. Can the police stop the Jackal? How far can the Jackal run? Who will win this cat-and-mouse game?

Well, obviously not the Jackal, since Charles de Gaulle died of natural causes in real life,  but the film, based on real events, branches off beautifully into a ‘What if?’ scenario, and the ending is as satisfying as the beginning. The climax was shot during the Bastille Day celebrations on July 14th at the Champs-Élysées, much to the consternation of the people gathered there, who assumed the police were really searching for a criminal. It lent an air of versimilitude to the climatic chase, and ratcheted the tension by many degrees.

Edward Fox is simply fantastic as the Jackal. He seems to melt into the background, the sort of man whom you would not give a second look. He’s unassuming, charming, impeccably dressed… and ruthless. He will kill, without compunction. Without second thought. The characterization of the assassin is also intriguing – the Jackal had informed Rodin that at the least hint of the plot becoming known, he would call off the assassination. Yet, even after learning that his cover has been blown, when he has a chance to leave France before the security forces catch up with him, he chooses to go ahead. 
Why? Professional pride? 

It's intriguing and lends a complexity to the Jackal that raises him from being a one-note caricature. Once he decides on his course of action, the Jackal seems extremely casual about it all. His preparations are exhaustive (one of the [many] nice touches in the film is when they show him practicing with the new rifle), his progress seems unhurried, and he is extremely cool and collected even as he nimbly stays one step ahead of his pursuers all the time. 
Michel Lonsdale, as the conscientious inspector who keeps pegging away at the case even though his hands are tied, and Tony Britton as his harried Scotland Yard counterpart, represent the intelligent, hardworking officers who attempt to trace a nameless, faceless assassin before it’s too late. The former, especially, breaks quite a few rules ‘unofficially’, but is hardly the sort of character you would expect to be a maverick. Lonsdale’s Lebel is a stodgy, conscientious, hardworking officer, and doesn’t look like he could say ‘boo’ to a goose.
He underplays his role beautifully, his analytic, determined police officer not descending into a cardboard cutout. As Lebel pieces the jigsaw together, and stays on the Jackal's trail despite the difficulties hampering his investigation, one gets a peek at how much police investigations depend on long hours of patient plodding and footwork, coupled with the insight that allows these officers to make educated guesses.

Frederick Forsyth, then a journalist with Reuters, had covered the assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle. He used his knowledge of the event to write this meticuously crafted political thriller, following the failure of his first (non-fiction) book on the Biafra war (which he had also covered). The Day of the Jackal never veers from its fell purpose of keeping the suspense intact; at two-and-a-half-hours, the film uses its measured pace to build up the tension to the thrilling climax. The film, closely following Forsyth’s novel in both spirit and execution, won for Ralph Kemplen the BAFTA award for film editing (the film had five other BAFTA nominations); it also collected three Golden Globe nominations and one Academy Award nomination. It’s interesting that the only award the film won was for Best Editing (it was nominated in this category at BAFTA, the Golden Globes and the Oscars). Deservedly so, in my opinion, because it is the editing –  the cuts from the Jackal’s preparations to the police force industriously sifting through leads and evidence, in particular  that makes this film so nail-bitingly spellbinding.

Stark and simple, bereft of anything but scenes that were absolutely necessary, the film practiced an economy of purpose that stood it in good stead. In fact, while I’m almost always disappointed with screen adaptations of books, this must be the best book-to-screen adaptation I’ve ever seen. Seen today, more than four decades after its initial release, The Day of the Jackal is as suspenseful and thrilling as ever.   

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