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Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Day of the Jackal - A Review

In a medium which has descended into the realm of good looks, hot stream lined youth, action packed happenings, multiple explosions and the fine line between what is real and what is virtually real it’s quite a culture shock to dive head first into the classic era of film making where the story was everything and a director had to tell it well.

By modern expectations, and at first glance Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 adaptation of The Day of the Jackal might be accused of being none of those things which bring the patrons en masse to the cinemas these days, but if you’re willing to give it a chance you just might find that it doesn’t need to be, because it is a tense tale told intensely well!

Tense. I’m going to use that word a lot throughout this review!

In brief it is the story of The Jackal, the mysterious assassin hired by the militant underground OAS of France, bent on seeing the then French president Charles de Gaulle eliminated to further their own political agenda.

The film opens like a series of News Segments, the kind I imagine my parents would have endured at the movies when they were young; a nasally English News presenter brings you up to speed with unwarranted enthusiasm as key members of the OAS are rounded up and sentenced to death due to an earlier botched assassination attempt.

The remaining leaders of the cabal realise their only hope of success is in recruiting a foreigner capable of going undetected about his business of professional murder.

The Jackal himself, apparently an unassuming Englishman (I say apparently), played convincingly by the then unknown Edward Fox, goes about plotting and pursuing his ruthless task. He is cold, calculating and undeniably resourceful, kind of like Jason Bourne, only the evil version.

It’s not surprising that this movie received a BAFTA for Best Film Editing in 1974 as it leaps masterfully from one scene to the next; the Jackal steals the identity of a deceased two year old, Paul Oliver Duggan, he has a special gun constructed for his mission, he steals another passport…

On a side note, while I was tempted to criticize how easy applying for a fake passport was back then I found out that this film, along with the book of the same name, saw the London Public Records and Passport Offices take measures against this sort of thing! The things you learn.

Meanwhile the French authorities, through means of torture have squeezed the codename “Jackal” from an OAS operative and are now aware that somewhere and somehow an attempt on their President’s life will be made, but who on earth is The Jackal?

So intriguing are the meticulous antics of this evil-Bourne that it takes approximately 48 minutes before the films leading protagonist, Deputy Claude Lebel, played by Michael Londsdale, is recruited by the French Government to catch this professional man of mystery. Partnered with his assistant Caron, a very young Derek Jacobi, and a lot of telephones, he begins the ominous task of not only finding a needle in a haystack but doing so without even knowing what a needle looks like let alone what type of needle it is.

Claude, by comparison to the brutal “Englishman”, is gruff, quiet, humble, hiding behind his onion layers and a moustache that would have made Magnum P.I. jealous. He slowly but surely catches up to the film’s antagonist until the thrilling climax… which I won’t give away of course!

What made this feature so interesting to me was that as the viewer you were treated to special information about a man so mysterious and so elusive, that for most of the film you, the viewer, are the only one who really knows anything about what is going on with this character while everyone else fumbles about in the dark.

Usually it’s the other way round, a story smothers you with the tale about the brilliant hero and his journey to the climax, while the baddie is shrouded in mystery, hiding in the shadows. Two examples of this off the top of my head are the Blair Witch Project (random I know) where throughout the entire movie you don’t see the malevolent force of the woods. Another example would be The Lord of the Rings Trilogy where the Dark Lord only ever appears as the great big burning eyeball. What I am saying is usually you don’t get intimate with the bad guy.

Somehow in The Day of the Jackal Zinnemann turns this method of storytelling on its head, the good guys are present but you don’t really get to know them, while the bad guy and his journey keeps you hanging on to the very apex, despite the fact that he’s just so darn evil.

Another thing, which I doubt was intentional given the era this film was made in, was the absence of computers and technology which added to the tension of the hunt. A great example of this is the authorities are keeping an eye on hotels throughout France for the killer’s alter ego, Paul Oliver Duggan. Unable to simply tap into a central guest registry the names of guests are written on cards and couriered to Paris where by the time the Deputy finds out where the Jackal is, he’s already gone. Then there are the clumsy rotary phones of the day, the ones that had a circle around the numbers that I only just vaguely recall from my childhood. No mobiles, no cordless communication of any kind sees one character (but I won’t say who) meet their grizzly end because they could not make it to the phone on time. The frustration of it all is brilliant!

Which brings me to the use of clocks. In fact there are 31 shots of clocks depicting the time throughout this 143 minute long suspense drama, which again ads to the tension. I felt like I was being reminded that time was running out, catch him or the President gets it! Intense.

You would think that amidst all the tense suspense would be a soundtrack to rival cats in agonizing pain but it wasn’t until the film had about 20 minutes left, that I suddenly realized the shocking truth that this movie has almost absolutely no soundtrack! Apart from the odd radio or TV playing in the background or in one scene Marching Band music in the streets of Paris. The director manages to completely pull off what until now I thought was impossible - a story that does not need to be carried by the unseen character of music!

It isn’t surprising that this film has inspired at least one remake that I know of, 1997’s The Jackal, starring none other than Bruce Willis as the villain, and while I usually have a default dislike of remaking something that does not need to be remade, because the original was already brilliant, I can appreciate the compliment of one generation of film makers wanting to pay tribute to that which preceded it – and this movie in my opinion certainly warranted tribute.

So to the late Fred Zinnemann I tip my imaginary hat to you for achieving not only a brilliant movie with no soundtrack, propelled by a then unknown star, featuring an inordinate number of clocks but also for making a brilliant adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s book of the same name (although I should insert here that I haven’t read the book but will now that this film has inspired me to).

The movie might have looked like an episode of Get Smart at times and I might have confused Edward Fox with a younger David Bowie at points but one thing is for sure, I did not want to leave my couch until the last gun went bang.

You’ve got to go see The Day of the Jackal.

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