The Day of the Jackal was released, the story of one man attempting to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, and the international manhunt unleashed to stop him. Based on the success of the novel, a film adaptation was produced two years later. The tale of how a nameless assassin came within an inch of killing one of the most influential statesmen of the 20th century has left a permanent mark on spy thrillers and assassination movies since its 1973 release and is every bit as gripping and believable now as it was 38 years ago.
When de Gaulle decides to grant independence to Algeria (which France had occupied since 1830), French nationalists are angered and feel this is a betrayal of all the French soldiers who perished in maintaining Algeria as a French colony. They repeatedly attempt to kill de Gaulle, who survives everything they throw at him. Desperate, they turn to a foreign contract killer, known only as the Jackal (Edward Fox). The Jackal takes the job, distancing himself from the nationalists, and, by extension, the French government, who have been keeping tabs on them. French intelligence become aware of the plot, recruiting deputy police commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) to stop the Jackal before he reaches de Gaulle and keep the whole thing quiet. But they don't have a clue who they're dealing with, and all the machinations of the French and British intelligence services cannot stop The Day of the Jackal.
In 1997, The Day of the Jackal was loosely remade as The Jackal, so lowly regarded that Frederick Forsyth and original director Frederick Zinnemann both disavowed it. The Jackal has a soundtrack featuring contributions from artists such as The Prodigy, Massive Attack and Apollo Four Forty. The Day of the Jackal, by comparison, features little to no incidental music. Indeed, the climatic scene has La Marseille in the background as part of the story.
That speaks a lot for Zinnemann's adaptation of Forsythe's novel. It's deceptively slow-moving - there are absolutely no frills, no explosions, no pounding orchestral score, nothing that we'd expect to see in a modern-day spy thriller. Instead, the story tells itself, with nothing to distract you or remind you that this is just a movie.
It's helped, in large part, by the electric and career-defining performance of Edward Fox. Chosen over more famous (and recognizable) actors, there's nothing about Fox's Jackal that screams "I am a remorseless killer", and this makes him all the more believable. On two brief occasions does he lose his cool. The rest of the time, he's affable, friendly, polite, relaxed, sociable. On the other end of the spectrum, Claude Lebel is the one who's harried, frantic and frustrated as every lead turns into a dead end, with the Jackal one step closer to de Gaulle.
Because The Day of the Jackal is played so straight, that's what makes it a tremendously effective movie. Sometimes, occasionally, this works against it, since it eschews so many devices and clichés to ostensibly move the story along. But an indication of how much Zinnemann believed in his movie is the fact that the final act of the film - the titular day of the Jackal - has almost no dialog, no incidental music. Even the showdown between Lebel and the Jackal is all of a breathless few seconds. Done so straight and so devoid of fluff is why The Day of the Jackal remains, to this day, a fantastic, elegant and mesmerizing story of how a man with no name came so close to changing the world.
5.0/5.0: Taut, tense and utterly realistic, The Day of the Jackal set the standard for all other movies of its ilk to follow.