Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Day of the Jackal: A Medley of Audience Manipulation and Suspense

Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal is a gripping, first-rate thriller--it ranks among my favorite films--but it nevertheless disturbs me. Every time I watch it, I find myself temporarily pulling for a professional assassin to complete his assignment of killing French president Charles de Gaulle. All great films manipulate the emotions of its viewers; to a large extent, that's what makes them great. However, I find it somewhat alarming when a film can manipulate its viewers so completely into pulling for the villain.

Based on Frederick Forsyth's bestseller, The Day of the Jackal opens with a failed 1962 assassination of de Gaulle by an organization called the OAS. The members of the OAS, many of them former military leaders, felt that President de Gaulle betrayed France when he gave independence to Algeria. After discovering potential intelligence leaks within its membership, the OAS makes a contract with an independent professional assassin who takes the code name of "the Jackal." During an "interview" for the job, one of the OAS leaders insists: "We are not terrorists...we are patriots." The Jackal's unemotional reponse: "So you want to get rid of him?"

The rest of the film follows two parallel plotlines: The Jackal preparing for the assassination and the French authorities learning about the Jackal's mission and trying to stop him. The latter plotline is initially difficult to follow because characters float in and out of the narrative as the assassination attempt comes to light as bits of evidence are pieced together. A central hero finally comes into focus when Lebel (Michael Lonsdale)--the "best detective in France" according to the police commissioner--is appointed to head the investigation.

The Jackal inspects his newly-made rifle.
Meanwhile, the Jackal takes center stage quietly and effectively from the outset. We follow his methodical preparations: he takes the name of a deceased baby from a cemetery headstone; he obtains a passport; he steals keys and has them duplicated; he has French citizen ID documents falsified; he designs his rifle and has it manufactured to his precise specifications, and so on. The bottom line is that we, the viewers, invest time in following the Jackal's meticulous preparations. We grow to admire his business-like approach. Even when he kills an associate, it's tempting to rationalize it. After all, the victim was an unlikable chap who was trying to blackmail the Jackal.

It's only when the Jackal murders an innocent woman--as the climax approaches--that the viewer truly realizes the Jackal is a ruthless killer unworthy of admiration. Subsequent murders reinforce this critical point so that, as the Jackal takes aim at de Gaulle, the audience is rooting appropriately for Lebel and his cohorts to stop the Jackal. Still, it's an interesting experience to realize how much one's emotions have been subtly manipulated up to that point.

Edward Fox, who spent most of his acting career playing military officers and upper-class Englishmen, portrays the Jackal as a well-organized, no-nonsense businessman. Zinnemann chose him over better-known actors, such as Michael Caine, because he wanted to cast an unknown actor in the lead role. It's a smart decision because it makes the Jackal a nondescript mystery man. In fact, except for what we see of the Jackal, nothing is revealed about his character--there's no backstory and not much be gained from his relationships with other people.

Michael Lonsdale as Ledel.
In contrast, Lebel is a three-dimensional character whose personality is carefully etched in a few short scenes. Initially, he feels he may not be up to the task at hand. But, as the manhunt for the Jackal progresses, Lebel  becomes more aggreesive in his pursuit and more confident in his approach. At a meeting with senior French officials, he calmly informs them that he has a taped telephone conversation that implicates one of them in leaking information to the OAS. Michael Lonsdale perfectly captures Lebel's initial uncertainties that disappear into confident determination. It's a fine performance which always reminds me how much Lonsdale was wasted as 007's bland nemesis in Moonraker.

I first saw The Day of the Jackal in 1973 when my sister was working at a movie theatre. I would tag along with her when she went to work and then watch the current attraction multiple times until her shift was over. At the time, I had never heard of The Day of the Jackal nor anyone in the cast. But, by the time the evening was over, I was a fan of this highly-manipulative, but exceeding well-made thriller. I've seen the 1997 remake, The Jackal, which is decent enough...but it can't compare to the enthralling original.


  1. I agree that it's difficult not to root for the Jackal in this film, and I think your write-up explains why this is the case. Because we don't really learn anything about him, we can't genuinely relate to him. His sole purpose, at least the only thing we know, is the assassination, so it's understandable to follow him to this point, and likewise reasonable that he'd take care of any obstacles (such as the blackmailer). Any wretched act he might perform that does not pertain to his goal is one that viewers can't support. And humanizing any character like this makes it hard to sympathize with them, because a viewer might see him/herself in said character. Any apparently "justified" murder, like those committed by Charles Brosnan in DEATH WISH, is an undertaking viewers would distance themselves from, so as not to associate themselves with a murderous deed. I concur that Lonsdale is very good in this and is also utterly wasted in MOONRAKER. Fox's stoic performance is solid and appropriate. This was a wonderful post, Rick!

  2. Rick, I haven't seen The Day of the Jackal in quite a while, but it was memorable, and I loved it. You are right on with your assessment of the movie, but especially with your insight into the manipulation of the audience. Edward Fox was just right as the attractive, well-dressed, business-like killer, and I remember admiring him too.

    It's scary to realize that you have admired a cold-blooded sociopath. I had that same experience when I first started watching The Sopranos. They gave you just enough time to really like Tony Soprano and his friends and family. I will never forget the 3rd of 4th episode(?) when Tony killed a man with his bare hands. I suddenly realized, I liked this guy, but this is what he really is! Disconcerting to say the least.

    Excellent review of a really good movie. I want to see it again. (The remake was with Bruce Willis, right? It was good, different, and I think I prefer Fox. The fact that he wasn't a big star worked to his advantage in the part.

  3. Great review. I like this movie as well. Edw. Fox is chillingly good. I think of him as a killing machine since so little is given to us relative to his humanity - if he has any. Even though we know the ending going in, after all DeGaulle was never assassinated - the film still manages to keep up the suspense until the very end. And what an ending!

  4. Terrific film. I like the fact that you know very little about the Jackal and yet from the way he conducts himself and from what the police say, you actually know a lot. Fox was perfect. I was not a fan of the Bruce Willis remake, only because it was sad that so few people remembered the original. I think it's Mark Harris who is always saying that filmmakers should stop remaking great films and remake bad ones because you can never improve on a classic. The original Jackal is a classic.

  5. Like you I saw this back in 1973 and remember liking it quite a bit. Really need to watch it again. Read the book around the same time, and if you have not read it, you should, it's a good read.

  6. Rick, thanks for the great write-up of one of my favorite movies! Edward Fox does an incredible job in his portrayal of an utterly ruthless, utterly business-like assassin.

    I also like this movie because a very young Derek Jacobi appears as Lebel's assistant.

    But I do want to note that I have never been on the side of the Jackal, I always root for Lebel from the start!

    That said, I always do feel some sympathy for the rebels at first (the ones who hire the Jackal), because they seem very sincere in their political beliefs and are willing to give their own lives for the cause if necessary.

    The scene where one of the captured rebels is being tortured to obtain information about the assassination plot is horrific, and reminds the viewer that the De Gaulle government could be just as cold-hearted as the Jackal.

    An amazing movie...even though I have the DVD I still end up watching it every time it's shown on TCM, Encore or HDNet movies!

  7. I am a fan of each of the "Day of..." films of the '70s...different as each is from the others: "The Day of the Dolphin" and "The Day of the Locust" are the other two I have in mind. I've also thought that "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Day of the Jackal" would make for an interesting double bill - the link being the tenacious assassin characters and the unrelenting tension and palpable suspense. Though "Jackal" is set in the '60s, it has a '70s sensibility. I agree, Rick, this one is irresistible and I generally make a point of watching it whenever it pops up on TV. Excellent appraisal...

  8. Rick, I like this movie too. I found myself wound up in the Jackal's plan, his cleverness, and his determination to shoot his target. I don't think that is a good thing either pulling for the "bad guy," but I couldn't help it until the second he pointed the gun at his target. Then I thought wow...he is going to murder someone in cold blood!! Edward Fox is great in this role. He plays an assassin rather well!! I agree that the remake was a waste of money. This version is the classic one to watch. Enjoyed your review.

  9. Rick, you made a fascinating point in your assessment of "The Day of the Jackal." It is interesting to be manipulated into "supporting" a character whose actions are detestable. I remember feeling that pulling when reading a book of John Grisham. You have provided a thought-provoking analysis of this film. Well done!

  10. Rick, you are so right about being disturbed by rooting for villains. I had this same experience with The Usual Suspects. I've seen bits and pieces of this film over the years, but I don't know that I ever sat down and watched the whole thing in one sitting. Fox is a favorite of mine, so I imagine he was quite good in this.