“The Day of the Jackal” was the first novel I came to love as a teenager and I read it for the first time the year arrived on film (1973). I have since read the book dozens of times and today I re-read it during each August and end up on Aug. 25, which is the “Day of the Jackal” on my calendar. The film “The Day of the Jackal” is an excellent adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 bestseller. The semi-remake “The Jackal” (click here for my review) is a disgrace to the legacy and top-shelf quality of both the “The Day of the Jackal” novel and original film. So, go to the real deal and a real motion picture: “The Day of the Jackal.”
‘The Day of the Jackal’
(1973; 143 minutes; rated PG; directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Edward Fox and Michael Lonsdale)
AN INTENSE STORY THROUGH DRAMA, NOT SPECIAL EFFECTS
(NOTE: I have expanded this review twice on Aug. 16, 2014; again on Aug. 25, 2015 – the 52nd anniversary of the penultimate moment in the book and film; and then again Feb. 15, 2016. I also added some links on July 18, 2015. Readers can click here for my overview of the novel and film — plus a timeline of the action in the book. I updated links again and expanded the review on Jan. 1, 2019.)
Just as John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (click here for my review) in 1978 is the gold standard of a horror movie that doesn’t need gut-wrenching gore to terrify, four-time Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann’s “The Day of the Jackal” is the gold standard on several levels. “The Day of the Jackal” is the gold standard with a thriller that doesn’t need special effects or outlandish ideas to create drama and its excellence in storytelling is, while detailed, is a gold standard because it doesn’t bog down and builds intensity to its climax.
Most impressive is that “The Day of the Jackal” is the gold standard in how to bring a novel to the big screen. It is adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s bestseller and is the story of a plot in the early 1960s by dissident elements of the military to kill French President Charles DeGaulle and overthrow the government. While other plots and dissidents are historically accurate, the Jackal part of the plot is fiction (well, maybe …).
The film’s geography has been altered across Europe from the novel’s details to better fit in with streamlining the film for the screen. It works and works well, as does Kenneth Ross’ adaptation of the novel. Ross does a great job writing a screenplay that is close to the novel without getting it bogged down in unnecessary details.
For example, the really detailed explanation in the novel that surrounds the initial assassination attempt and the capture of the conspirators and would-be assassins are compressed into a quick shoot-’em-up scene just after the opening credits and then one line by the film’s narrator wraps up dozens of pages of the novel with a quick “six months later” comment about the capture and trial of the conspirators.
While the storytelling by director Zinnemann easily surpasses 99.9-percent of films released today, the acting, while never overly emotional or wrung out in fits of pique by characters overwhelmed by emotion or events, is merely solid and can be admired for nearly total understatement.
Zinnemann is the true superstar in the production, having directed such classics as “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity” and “Oklahoma!” in a career that began in 1930 and concluded with 46 directing credits with 1982’s “Five Days One Summer.” Zinnemann is a director’s director, who has six Oscar nominations to go with his four statues, and knows how to tell a story and it becomes obvious that by not rushing the pace he continues to build tension without turning to grandstanding or cinematic tricks to solidify his hand.
Now, for a look at members of the principal cast:
- The excellent British actor Edward Fox, who has done great turns in everything from blockbuster war films such as “A Bridge Too Far” (click here for my review) to spectacular biopics such as “Gandhi,” plays the “Jackal,” a humorless, cold and extremely professional assassin. Fox is excellent at conveying affable, friendly or coldly distant as the situation arises and he is very convincing when he’s calculating his next move. Fox brings the character to life with muted style, switching from one persona to another easily. Fox was also in “Nighthawks” (click here for my review) but did not have much of a presence and had a bigger role in the total stinker “Force 10 from Navarone” (click here for my look at crappy sequels) in a career of 116 roles spanning six decades with the last in 2018.
- Michael Lonsdale (his name is spelled “Michel” in the credits then) portrays “Inspector Claude Lebel,” the French detective who is assigned first to identify a faceless international assassin and then to track the Jackal down. Lonsdale does a quite workman like job conveying the plodding, intelligent cop who always is one step behind the Jackal but never falling further back. He ultimately catches up. He is so understated that at the end of the film you might not realize what a wonderful performance he has given. Lonsdale was the villain battling “James Bond” in “Moonraker” as well as having been in “Munich,” “Ronin” and “Chariots of Fire” (click here for my review).
- Lonsdale’s assistant “Caron” is capably played by Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Derek Jacobi, who dispatches his role with anxiety and energy. It’s a small part, but Jacobi makes it an effective one through his ability to convey the character’s earnestness. Jacobi has also been in “The King’s Speech” and “Gladiator” and was nominated for the TV flick “The Tenth Man.”
- Classical British stage actor Tony Britton plays “Inspector Bryn Thomas,” who is the London detective trying to help the French uncover the Jackal’s true identity. Like Jacobi, Britton turns in a solid but unspectacular performance. Britton has been in “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He died at 95 in 2019.
- One interesting supporting character is “The Forger” played by Ronald Pickup. This character fails (mortally so) in trying to blackmail Fox. He does a languidly neat job with a small character, but makes a solid impact on the film. Pickup has been in “The Mission” and “Lolita.”
The rest of the supporting cast isn’t much to write home about, with the exception of the gunsmith played by Cyril Cusack, who was also in “Harold and Maude” and “My Left Foot.” Cusack has crafted a role that fits so well with the personality of the character and carries it off flawlessly. His career incredibly begins with a credit from 1918 when he was 8 years old (“Knocknagow,” according to IMDb.com) and spans seven decades, ending the year of his death of motor neuron disease at 82 in 1993 with a TV episode of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
It’s worth your while to find and watch “The Day of the Jackal.” Read the book, too, it’s as good a read today as it was when it was first published in 1971.
“The Day of the Jackal” made $16 million at the box office, according to Wiki, and it never was tops at the box office in 1973 as it was released while Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” was dominating at U.S. theaters. The No. 1 film of the year was seven-time Oscar winner “The Sting” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Films I’ve reviewed from the year include:
- “Dillinger” (mediocre gangster flick) – click here for my review
- “Live and Let Die” (solid 007) – click here for my review
- “Magnum Force” (“Dirty Harry” sequel) – click here for my review
- “The Night Strangler” (outstanding TV horror flick) – click for my review
- “The Seven-Ups” (cop thriller) – click here for my review
Other cast, film and book notes (via IMDb.com and Wiki):
- The e-book version of “The Day of the Jackal” novel (for Kindle) is riddled with typos and just plain errors. The most egregious translation is instead of the original “motorcyclists” for police escorting DeGaulle, the e-book has “motards.” Really? Motards? Stupid. Also, in some cases where Forsyth used French vocabulary, it has been translated to English thereby taking the nuance away from the e-book version. In some cases, characters’ names are misspelled. It’s an absolute disgrace how the book has been converted to e-readers and another absolute disgrace that the publisher (or at least Mr. Forsyth himself) doesn’t make it right.
- From IMDb.com: “The film features no soundtrack music after the first five minutes other than diegetic background music from marching bands, street musicians and radios.”
- IMDb.com also notes that Roger Moore, most famous as “James Bond,” was considered for the role, but rejected by Zinnemann as being too famous. Nevertheless, Moore would get his chance to play off Lonsdale, who was the villain in the 007 feature “Moonraker” in 1979.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson and Roger Moore were considered for the role of the Jackal.” I have to say that Redford, while supremely qualified, certainly couldn’t have been the Jackal, while it would have been a big joke for Nicholson to try. Caine would have been an interesting idea, but he’s a bit too soft (and, yes, I saw “Dressed to Kill”).
- Zinnemann died of a heart attack at the age of 89 in 1997. He won Oscars for “A Man for All Seasons” (two wins – director and film), “From Here to Eternity” (director – one of eight that it won) and “Benjy” (a 1951 documentary short). Zinnemann’s nominations include one for “Julia” (director), “The Sundowners” (two – one each for picture and director), “The Nun’s Story” (director), “High Noon” (director) and “The Search” (director).
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Technical specifications and fold-out diagram for building the actual assassin’s rifle are included with the hardcover Franklin Mint special edition of the novel.”
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