Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The lethal economy of Fred Zinnemann's Day of the Jackal (1973)

France, 1963. Frustrated at the government's decision to pull out of Algeria, a group of right-wing extremists known as OAS attempted to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle. They failed.

Determined to achieve their goal, the leaders of the group hire a mysterious assassin known as the 'Jackal' (Edward Fox) to make another attempt on the president.

With time running out, the authorities scramble to find the killer before he reaches his target...


I first saw it about 18 years ago. I was way into James Bond, and my granddad had recorded this movie off the TV (remember those days?). I am not sure if he said it was better than any Bond movie, but at the time I watched it I remember that idea running through my brain. By the time it was done, all thoughts of Bond had been wiped from my brain.

I've re-watched Day of the Jackal multiple times since, and I am always impressed by its unobtrusive style, its directional precision, its sense of time and place, the SILENCE. This is a movie that could never be made today.

I cannot emphasize enough how Zinnemann's approach is so perfectly attuned to this story - and how at odds that approach is with current trends in Hollywood filmmaking. Just in terms of editing and sound design alone, this movie would feel completely different if made today.
The movie features so many great scenes that are tied to Zinnemann's style of filmmaking - the Jackal testing his rifle on fruit in an empty field; his covert execution of a woman who has talked to the police; his brief tryst with a gay man which is interrupted by an unfortunately timed newscast... All these scenes derive at least part of their impact from Zinnemann's slow pacing, careful shot selection and the lack of music.

Just check out the scene where the Jackal tests out his new gun.

There is little dialogue, no music and Zinnemann lets the action play out in-camera, rather than collapsing time through editing. In scenes like this or during the final assassination attempt, Zinnemann's deliberate pacing and stylistic restraint works to focus attention on what is happening without adding (or inhibiting) viewer investment with additional choices (such as dramatic music to guide the viewer's emotional responses). Without any obvious visual or aural cues, Zinnemann aligns the viewer with the Jackal's single-minded pursuit of his goal.

I have a couple of ideas as to why the Jackal gains the viewer's (partial) allegiance. The first is that the film feels like a strange variation of an underdog story, as we follow the Jackal-a single man- dodge the power of the French state and overcome the obstacles standing in his way. There is something compelling about watching one man attempt to take on the establishment, and Day of the Jackal works as this kind of narrative.

Another theory I have is that the film works in a similar way to a heist movie. Part of the fun of a movie like Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) or Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) is watching the planning of the operation, with a third act based on its execution. Our investment in the main character(s) is based on watching them come up with a plan to reach a goal, and then the execution of that plan.

There is a basic satisfaction with this type of story, and Day of the Jackal works in exactly the same way: At the beginning, the Jackal's task appears to be impossible, but the attention to detail in showing every aspect of his plan pulls us in. Even though it is cold-blooded murder and not jewels the Jackal is aiming for, the movie feels like a feature-length version of that scene from Psycho where Norman Bates is waiting for Marioan Crane's car to sink into the swamp.

It is a testament to how invested we are in the Jackal's scheme that when the Jackal kills anyone who jeopardises his scheme, it is totally valid if a viewer feels both revolted by his amorality and reassured that his plan has not been de-railed. Part of the reason why the Jackal does not lose the viewer is that there is little real violence shown; the Jackal's actions are so efficient there is never any focus on his victims' pain; and, most importantly, by keeping the narrative focus on his villain's planning, Zinnemann has made the viewer invested in the Jackal's actions.

A lot of credit has to go to Edward Fox. A relative unknown who you may remember as a supporting player in various movies, Fox is perfectly anonymous as the Jackal. So often thrillers like this talk about characters who can disappear into crowds. While he is good-looking, Fox is no matinee idol and he blends in to the everyday surroundings in a way that you could not imagine a big star like (rumoured casting) Michael Caine. His casting gives the movie a level of verisimilitude that adds to the movie's tension.

Fox's relative anonymity also adds a jolt to the violence - at the outset, you cannot imagine such a skinny bland little guy hurting anybody. Going back to the idea of Day of the Jackal as a perverse underdog story, having a character actor like Fox play the role, rather than a big star (ala Bruce Willis in the remake) increases the suspense because - without an athletic star in the role - viewers bring no expectations toward the actor. On a meta-level, Fox has to prove his mettle.

On top of this, Fox delivers a terrifically understated performance. It is hard job to make a character with no real personality appealing, but Fox manages to do it. There is a pared-down, almost sociopathic minimalism to his performance that - in the context of Zinnemann's equally unobtrusive frame - is absolutely hypnotising.
Top to bottom, Day of the Jackal is a great movie - I haven't even brought up the fact that the whole movie is based on a fictional character killing a real person who was dead before the movie came out. THAT is the real testament to how durable this movie is. If you have never seen Day of the Jackal, rectify that situation post-haste.

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