The Day of the Jackal (1973) Blu Ray (Arrow) starring Edward Fox
Based on a 1971 novel by Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal is a fictionalised account of a 1960s real-life French paramilitary organisation called the OAS - a group of ex-members of the French Foreign Legion who opposed Algerian independence - and their attempts to assassinate then-president Charles De Gaulle.
It opens with a group of would-be assassins led by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry (Jean Sorel) opening fire on De Gaulle’s motorcade. Their attempt fails, Bastien-Thiry is arrested and is executed by firing squad. The remaining members of the organisation, led by Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter), hide out in Vienna and decide to make one last attempt at killing their country’s leader by hiring one of the world’s best: a mysterious man who goes by the codename Jackal (Edward Fox). His fee: $500,000 - half now, half when the job is done.
The European intelligence agencies are keen to prevent the OAS from carrying out further attempts, so they capture one of their members named Wolenski (Jean Martin) and interrogate him by electric shock torture. Eventually, he gives up the name of this professional assassin, and the French authorities hire one of the finest police officers in the country named Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) to help track him down.
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While very much in the thriller mould, The Day of the Jackal takes a distinctive approach to its genre. While there are scenes of violence, action and suspense, these are low-key in execution and never go beyond what erupts naturally from the storyline. That’s the film all over: barring perhaps its smart use of parallel montage, it’s resolutely lacking in flash. There’s hardly ever any musical score present and the scenes are shot in a plain, coldly matter-of fact manner.
The film involves the viewer because of its near documentary-like sense of realism. Both the script and the mise en scène are marked by an attention to fine, believable details. Bar a few interiors, most of it is shot on-location in France, England, Italy and Austria. The cast is made up of large numbers of “I recognise them from somewhere” type character actors rather than major stars, all of whom bring their roles - be they large or small - to colourful life. The film’s finale was shot during a Liberation Day parade in Paris - something the filmmakers take full advantage of. The overall effect is less one of watching a movie, and more one of watching unfolding events taking place for real.
Director Fred Zinnemann keeps the proceedings well-paced and constantly on-the-move. While there are a lot of scenes involving characters doing little more than driving or walking through the various multinational locations, these feel less like padding and more like a sense of things slowly but surely coming into place. There’s a lot of satisfaction that gradually builds up from the cat-and-mouse aspects: the myriad of cunning ways in which The Jackal stays one step ahead of the authorities, and equally the dogged determination exhibited by Lebel which ends up getting him tantalisingly close to catching him on a number of occasions.
The one major issue with The Day of the Jackal is its length: 2 hours and 23 minutes. While I can’t really say I was ever bored, it’s not as consistently taut as it might have been. It’s possible that losing about half an hour of runtime would have turned it from a very good film into an excellent one. On the other hand, many of the seemingly trivial scenes do have payoffs later on that justify their existence.
It’s definitely worth a look for fans of realistic thrillers, and (at the risk of stating the obvious) it’s vastly superior to the 1997 remake starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere.
Runtime: 143 mins
Dir: Fred Zinnemann
Script: Kenneth Ross, based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth
Starring: Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Alan Badel, Cyril Cusack, Maurice Denham, Derek Jacobi, Jean Martin, Ronald Pickup, Eric Porter, Delphine Seyrig, Jean Sorel
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The picture restoration is so good that it feels like you have been transported back to 1973 and are watching the events with your own eyes (well, near enough). Absolutely pristine with superb colour balance. While the film’s natural audio is nothing too fancy, the uncompressed mono presentation is clean and certainly doesn’t offer anything to complain about.
“Making the Hit: the Story of The Day of the Jackal” by Mark Cunliffe discusses Frederic Forsyth’s creation of the original novel, which was inspired by his time as a reporter in Paris during President De Gaulle’s decision to make Algeria independent. He then looks at how director Fred Zinnemann took up the reins of the film adaptation during a time when he was embroiled in a lawsuit with studio MGM after they pulled the plug on a previous, very personal project. He also discusses (amongst other things) the film’s stylistic approach and Zinnemann’s motivations in casting the hitherto little-known Edward Fox in the titular role.
“Melon Farmers: The Day of the Jackal on British Television” chronicles director Fred Zinnemann and producer John Woolf raising a grievance with ITV after they televised the film in 1982 with 3 minutes and 17 seconds of cuts, which were imposed for scheduling reasons. It’s quite a revealing essay about TV networks’ controversial policies around producing altered versions of films to fit in with different schedules and time slots.
On the disc itself are the following:
In the Marksmans’ Eye
An interview with author Neil Sinyard who discusses the film. He talks about the film’s conception, the historical/political context and how it taps into Zinnemann’s recurring themes. He also dissects a few of the film’s most interesting scenes and explains what he finds so chilling about them. His clear passion for the film makes this a highly enjoyable doc.
A brief (under 3-minute) snippet of behind-the-scenes footage from the film’s tense finale, which was shot in Paris. We learn that the actor who played De Gaulle in the film (Adrien Cayla-Legrand) was well-known for his resemblance to the historical figure, and played him several times in various films.
Fred Zinnemann interview
Another, equally brief, snippet of behind-the-scenes footage from 1972, this time featuring the director.
While trailers rarely warrant my comments in Blu Ray reviews, this one is one of the better examples from the period. It’s quite a stylish effort with an interesting clock/timer graphical motif.
A solid and realistic, if rather long, 1970s thriller. While the extras aren’t the most extensive, the “In the Marksmans’ Eye” documentary is well worth the effort of watching.