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The Day of the Jackal

by Glenn Erickson Sep 18, 2018

Fred Zinnemann’s counter-assassination thriller remains topflight filmmaking, torn from reality and shot through with an unsentimental dose of political realism. Edward Fox’s implacable killer outwits the combined resources of an entire nation as he stalks his prey, and when bad luck forces him to improvise, he racks up more victims on his kill list. Step aside Bond, Bourne and Marvel — the original Jackal is the man to beat.

The Day of the Jackal
Arrow Video USA
1973 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 143 min. / Street Date September 25, 2018 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Edward Fox, Michel Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig, Cyril Cusack, Eric Porter, Tony Britton, Alan Badel, Michel Auclair, Tony Britton, Maurice Denham, Vernon Dobtcheff, Olga Georges-Picot, Timothy West, Derek Jacobi, Jean Martin, Ronald Pickup, Jean Sorel, Philippe Léotard, Jean Champion, Michel Subor, Howard Vernon.
Cinematography: Jean Tournier
Film Editor: Ralph Kemplen
Second Unit Director: Andrew Marton
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Written by Kenneth Ross from the book by Frederic Forsyth
Produced by John Woolf
Directed by
Fred Zinnemann


CineSavant reviewed a foreign disc of this terrific political crime thriller just over a year ago, but this U.S.-distributed Blu-ray is a major improvement in both transfer and presentation. Practically an instant classic upon its release in 1973, Fred Zinnemann’s show was a welcome credibility break after a decade of escapist James Bond tomfoolery. The film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s page-turner gave filmic espionage back its realistic, unforgiving edge — it’s the story of a ruthless lone wolf hit man, and the major national police effort that was required to counter his attempt to assassinate the French President Charles de Gaulle.

With just one movie, Fred Zinnemann reclaimed the international intrigue genre from escapist 007 fantasies. Author Frederick Forsyth began by ‘amiably falsifying’ history, implying that a man with the code name ‘Jackal’ was the murderer of actual assassination targets Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. But Forsyth’s writing did affect history when, in connection with the book, the real-life international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez came to be known as Carlos the Jackal.

In The Day of the Jackal, the legendary Zinnemann demonstrates that an old filmmaker has what it takes to out-dance the younger generation: this spy chase / murder thriller is a real grabber, as realistic and believable as anything made until that time. In keeping with Zinnemann’s open-eyed view of how things really work in the overlapping worlds of crime and international politics, the story also doesn’t shirk from showing the forces of law and order using torture to achieve their ends… as a matter of course.

In the early 1970s outrageous political violence seemed to be exploding all around the globe. The events of The Day of the Jackal take place ten years earlier, in a somewhat more ‘normal’ France. President de Gaulle’s government granted independence to Algeria after an eight-year war that had polarized and demoralized the nation. The country is then terrorized by the OAS (Organisation armée secrète), a group of Army fanatics that refuse to accept this final blow to the Empire. Branding de Gaulle a traitor, The OAS try to kill him with an armed ambush on the streets of Paris. When that fails they hire an anonymous hit man (Edward Fox) to finish the job. He takes the code name Jackal. They manage to plant the spy Denise (Olga-Georges-Picot) in the bed of a French security minister, to provide them with inside information. Jackal rounds up the tools of his trade: a weapon to do the killing and various alternate identities to help him get away afterwards. To pay Jackal’s fee of $500,000 dollars, the OAS commits a string of bank robberies. Meanwhile, French intelligence learns that the Jackal has gone into action by kidnapping and torturing an OAS functionary (Jean Martin). The Minister of the Interior (Alan Badel) orders an all-out investigation, giving ace detective Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale) near-unlimited police powers to find and neutralize the killer, whoever he is. Lebel takes command of much of the state bureaucracy to zero in on his quarry. Thanks to tips from the minister’s new mistress Denise, the OAS is able to tell Jackal what he needs to know to avoid capture. Even when his cover is blown, the brilliant, ruthless Jackal presses forward, motivated by professionalism and the excitement of the chase.

An impressive production in every respect, The Day of the Jackal avoids the usual mainstream trap of building the movie around star billing. We’re involved in the story, not a Paul Newman or Robert Redford (who was initially considered for the part). The emphasis is instead on a rich gallery of characters led by the charismatic, devious Edward Fox and the quietly brilliant Michel Lonsdale. It’s the defining film role for each of them. Class-act producer John Woolf (Oliver!, The Odessa File) allowed Zinnemann to follow a docudrama format. Americans in 1973 were impressed by the way the story hops between cities and countries, taking for granted action scenes staged on Paris boulevards and the crowded streets of Rome. As Zinnemann’s biographer Neil Sinyard points out, the director returns to the clock motif of his High Noon, using them to mark Jackal’s arrival in new cities, without the crutch of on-screen titles. Sinyard also makes the more general observation that Zinnemann gravitates toward stories in which a main character has to make an important decision. At one point The Jackal reaches a literal fork in the road, where it seems obvious that the smart thing to do is quit. He’s driven to continue out of sheer professional self-image.

The movie must have seemed especially relevant in 1973 when Europe was terrorized by waves of political violence, by the Red Brigades, Palestinian nationalists in Munich and anarchist criminal armies in Italy. The idea of outrageous gun battles breaking out on city streets has only now become a reality in America, but Jackal is a reminder of how tough the war between political extremes could get. The attempted ambush on de Gaulle was all but unthinkable. Crack second unit director Andrew Marton (55 Days at Peking, Crack in the World) helped Zinnemann stage the infamous event, and the result looks as real as news film.

Jackal impresses on all counts. The casting of two dozen interesting roles is so good, we aren’t bothered by the fact that everyone speaks English. Kenneth Ross’s complicated narrative plays out with a minimum of dialogue, and director Zinnemann keeps the fast-changing story going with remarkable clarity. Although we witness the expected official progress meetings among the ministers, and Lebel receives important news by messenger and telephone, we suffer none of the ‘information dumps’ of today’s action dramas. There are no instant research tools to trace the Jackal, and no magic computers as on TV shows like N.C.I.S.. Inspector Lebel orders up an army of police helpers to pore over endless paper passport records, turning cops into librarians. Thanks to a personal appeal to the English Prime Minister, Lebel has Scotland Yard doing the same, all unofficially.

In today’s more security-conscious world we’re impressed by how much effort is expended to identify and locate Jackal. Lebel has been given more power than anybody in France save the President, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it. He orders that hotel register notices be collected daily throughout France, and brought to the police by special motorcycle couriers. When Jackal leaves the slightest trace, Lebel has planes and helicopters at his disposal to whisk him across the country. After Lebel succeeds in plugging the leak that’s been feeding info to the OAS and Jackal, the Interior Minister asks how he knew which minister’s phone to tap. In a hilariously underplayed moment, Lebel answers that he didn’t know, so he tapped all of their phones. As the fictitious Miguel Vargas once said, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”  The ministers have to admit that they did give Lebel the legal authority to do whatever he felt necessary.

With the President’s life at stake from a real threat, the show doesn’t shirk from telling ugly truths about ‘intelligence gathering’: to obtain information the shadowy security forces torture an OAS operative, most likely to death. The irony is that the OAS man is played by Jean Martin, whose face will be indelible to anybody who has seen Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Martin played the implacable paratroop commander who spells out the harsh necessity to torture captured Algerian rebels. Here, he’s on the other end of electric shock.

The movie does shy away from one torture angle. With his phone tap, Lebel likely captures Olga Georges-Picot’s Denise red-handed… and if she talks she could likely bust the OAS ring wide open. But we get no torture sessions focused on a beautiful young Frenchwoman. Does Forsyth’s book give Denise’s fate more attention?

Above all we’re impressed by the maturity of Zinnemann’s direction, which uses no editing tricks beyond simple cross-cutting. The tension rises to a panic mode just the same — by maximizing visual communication, we understand what’s happening to many people in many places, with relatively few verbal explanations. The first time through the suspense goes through the roof. We’re fascinated by Jackal’s thorough preparations, and the brilliant way he improvises when the mission starts to go crazy. Only once or twice does he evade Lebel by sheer good luck. When things go wrong he’ll change his plans, steal or re-paint a car, or even shack up with the first woman he finds. Jackal does his share of killing, almost all of which happens off-screen. The way he kills one woman, in bed, is almost puzzling: she drops dead without even tensing up. Jackal could have earned a good living as an executioner: he’s faster, more reliable and certainly cheaper than fancy gas chambers and electric chairs.

Although we see a glimpse of a sign on the side of a building that reads ‘Happy 1963,’ the movie does little to enforce a strict period feel. There are plenty of late 1960s cars on view and hairstyles look longer and more fashionable. The minor anachronisms make no real difference, no more than do all those Frenchmen speaking English. We instead feel the same buzz as in old thrillers by Fritz Lang, or one of those silent serials like Fantomas: society is fighting back against a super-villain who knows all the tricks. The fantasy violence fantasized in all those silent serials has now become the political norm.


The all-star cast is extremely well chosen. Americans might know Cyril Cusack, the armorer who makes the Jackal’s custom-concealable rifle, but many faces in the show are only vaguely familiar. The OAS rebel who goes before a firing squad (“No French soldier will raise his rifle at me!” is Jean Sorel, who we saw as the husband in Buñuel’s Belle de jour. Alan Badel was best known here for playing a villain in Arabesque. One would have to be a foreign film buff to know the others: Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad, Stolen Kisses) is a woman that runs afoul of Jackal in a country hotel. Olga Georges-Picot (Je t’aime Je t’aime) is the OAS seductress performing ‘essential, unpleasant’ duty. Most of the smaller parts are filled by Britons and Frenchmen, favorites like Maurice Denham, Eric Porter, Derek Jacobi, Timothy West, Ronald Pickup, and Howard Vernon. Everyone recognizes the gendarme from the finale but can’t place him; he’s Philippe Léotard, soon to be seen in (French Connection II).

Fred Zinnemann’s reputation as a star director deserves a little polishing; Andrew Sarris slighted him with the category “Less Than Meets the Eye” yet his weak films are decent and his good films exceptional. He’s directed a tall stack of award- nominated performances. Moreso than many of his fellow exiles from Hitler’s Germany, Zinnemann remained committed to his politics. His wonderful The Search is still the most humanist of all the docudramas about the aftermath of WW2, and his The Nun’s Story is one of the few brutally honest films about the workings of church religion. His later career was sabotaged by MGM in the late 1960s, which canceled his massive production of Malraux’s Man’s Fate just as it was about to begin filming. It accounted for a seven-year hole in his working life. Despite the success of The Day of the Jackal Zinnemann would make only two more movies.


Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray of Day of the Jackal is presentation-wise a major improvement over an earlier Australian release from Shock Entertainment. The picture here looks even brighter, plus it’s given English subtitles and stronger audio. Georges Delerue is credited with a film score that disappears after only a couple of minutes, leaving the rest of the movie to get by on cinematic energy alone. So I assume there’s no soundtrack album?

An okay trailer is on board, that properly hypes the film’s suspense and action factors. But Arrow adds two very welcome extras. A brief but informative French newsreel from the set allows a spokesman to talk about the picture, and lets Zinnemann answer a few questions. The on-the-street filming looks busy, and Zinnemann looks happy.

Even better is a 36-minute talk with Zinnemann’s biographer Neil Sinyard, who takes us through parts of the director’s career, the full production story of the movie and some smart analysis of Jackal in context with Zinnemann’s other films. Sinyard argues that the director was ignored by the New Wave and the auteurists because his filmography didn’t have easily identifiable, consistent themes. But although the subject matter and genres changed, Sinyard makes a convincing case that Zinnemann’s basic approach to character and drama did not. The articulate author is very easy to listen to, prompting this viewer to hear him out to the end.

Also present for first-printing purchasers is a color-illustrated booklet (30 pages). Mark Cunliffe writes about Frederick Forsyth (who hated the 1997 remake), and Sheldon Hall offers a piece about a censored showing of the film on British television. Arrow’s version is full-length, even if the packaging scares us — it calls out the running time at a very short, very wrong 107 minutes.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Day of the Jackal
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New interview with Neil Sinyard, author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience; film clips from the movie set, including an interview with Fred Zinnemann; Theatrical trailer; Original screenplay by Kenneth Ross (BD-ROM content); illustrated booklet featuring new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe and film historian Sheldon Hall.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 15, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.