Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Day of the Jackal

The hitman is a staple of crime fiction. Maybe even more so in novels than films. The two best hitman novels, for my money, are 'Rogue Male' by Geoffrey Household and 'The Day of the Jackal' by Frederick Forsyth. Household humanises his protagonist; Forsyth keeps his an enigma. Household's novel is a rivetting aftermath story, focussing on the ramifications of a failed assassination attempt; Forsyth's a brilliantly paced account of the build-up to one. A novel which details, precisely and without any sensationalism, the logistics of killing someone.

Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of 'The Day of the Jackal' keys in to the procedural aspect of the narrative. The Jackal (Edward Fox)'s meticulous planning in the early stages - and, later, his talent for extemporisation when things go wrong and the net starts to tighten - is contrasted with the diligent investigative work of Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale), the man tasked with stopping him. With saving the life of his intended victim, Charles de Gaulle.

Now who would want to assassinate the President of France? A little outfit called the OAS, for one. They're a mite peeved that de Gaulle has granted independence to Algeria, seeing this kind of thing as decidedly un-French, and, in a pacy opening sequence, try to whack him themselves. This entails a handful of men with machineguns popping out from behind parked cars as The Prez's limo cruises by and letting rip. A portentous voice-over muses that seven seconds elapsed, 140 rounds were expended, one bullet (in a close but no gitane scenario) came within an inch of de Gaulle's noggin, but - crucially - no-one was injured.

If there's any factual basis in this it would seem that scary terrorist movements, in the '70s at least, were defined by the Baader-Meinhof group, the Red Hand Gang and the PLO, while the OAS brought up the rear, trailing quite a long way behind the Dennis the Menace Fan Club and the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

When the ringleaders are brought to justice and the OAS CEO invited to a blindfold party (fellow guests: a dozen bullets), the remaining members decide that a safer alternative - and one more likely to succeed - is the hiring of a renowned English hitman. Let me just reiterate that: a bunch of French guys resort to paying an English guy to do the job properly. Ouch, that's gotta hurt!

The Jackal, accepting the commission, reminds his employers that "this is a once-in-a-lifetime job, whoever does it can never work again". They ask his price. Remember that hilarious scene in the first 'Austin Powers' movie where Dr Evil asks for "one ... million ... dollars"? The Jackal asks for half a million. Jeez, even the subway hijack crew in 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three', made just one year later in 1974, ask for the full million. To make it worse, the half mill the Jackal asks for - it's not even dollars. It's francs. Bloody good job he's not doing the hit in 2009; he'd get paid in Euros and probably just be able to afford a restaurant car sandwich during his trip back on the Eurostar.

But I digress ...

The Jackal warns his employers that their organisation is riddled with moles, and suggests that those few who are party to his involvement should go to ground, keep a low profile and generally STFU. Unfortunately, the necessity of some high-profile bank robberies, payroll hold-ups and jewellery store heists in order to raise funds brings the heat down on them and senior OAS man Wolenski (Jean Morel) is nabbed by French security operatives. They interrogate him with such zealous brutality that I half expected Dudley Smith from 'L.A. Confidential' to step out from the shadows and ask Wolenski if he has a valediction, boyo.

Wolenski squeals. The authorities now know that de Gaulle's life is under threat and the assassin is operating under the codename Jackal. A manhunt gets underway, Lebel at the helm.

On one hand 'The Day of the Jackal' can be dismissed as an overlong, over-plotted co-production that's only just one spoonful of custard short of being a Euro-pudding; a work by the director of 'High Noon', 'From Here to Eternity' and 'A Man For All Seasons' which ticks along on narrative developments and accretion of detail rather than characterisation and human drama; a film which is, with the exception of a melon suspended from a tree exploding as the Jackal puts a practice shot through it, devoid of iconic or memorable imagery.

But that's kind of missing the point. 'The Day of the Jackal' is meant to be slightly bland; meant to dwell on minutiae. The devil is in the detail, be it the Jackal adjusting the sight on his rifle after the first couple of practice shots go wide, or stripping to the waist and doing a quick al fresco respray job on his car to throw the police off his trail for just a few hours longer. Or Lebel and his right-hand-man Caron (Derek Jacobi) painstakingly liaising with their opposite numbers in England, Italy and America, checking and cross-checking possible leads, chasing down that one clue that might put them on the trail.

The detail is in the Jackal's business meetings with the gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) who manufactures a portable, lightweight rifle to the hitman's specifications, and the snivelling forger (Ronald Pickup) who tries to blackmail him and pays the price. Fox is perfect as the Jackal, breezing through these scenes with an easy charm and ineffable civility, only for the mask to peel microscopically back at certain moments and reveal the icy cold reserve beneath; the glacial professionalism and emotional detachment.

Determinedly keeping pace with Forsyth's heavily-populated and labyrinthine plot, Zinnemann's direction follows the blueprint of Kenneth Ross's screenplay like a mechanic referring to the Haynes manual. Wisely, writer and director decline to find a human side to the Jackal or probe his backstory, and this more than anything is what boosts 'The Day of the Jackal' up a notch beyond the merely formulaic. The Jackal - everything about him a mystery, from his identity to why he became a killer to how he honed his various skills - is as absolute a character as, say, Michael Myers in 'Halloween'. He is what he is; he offers no explanation for himself; he simply stalks through the film with an implacable relentlessness. He'd probably put two in my head just for the glib tone of this article.

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