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The Day of the Jackal

Directed by Fred Zimmerman with Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale and Delphine Seyrig, Alan Badel, Eric Porter, Donald Sinden, Cyril Cusack, color, 107 minutes, 1973

Rooting for the Anti-Hero

Cover of DVD

Cover of the DVD

Even at their best, the James Bond films are frothy.  The Jackal, in this film, as played with fierce finesse by Edward Fox, is not.

The first James Bond film, Dr. No, starring Sean Connery, came out just before this film.  Roger Moore, the second actor to play James Bond in the movies, had been considered for the lead in "The Day of the Jackal."

Edward Fox is James Bond, at least as a villain, a damn attractive, superbly tailored, and quick witted.

He is the perfect anti-hero.  None of Hollywood's famous anti-heroes - Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, Anthony Hopkins as Hannibel Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs, Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange, Mel Gibson in Mad Max, Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, Sly Stallone in Rambo, or Jason Statham in  The Mechanic - are as polished, patient and pernicious, natty and nasty, intelligent and intriguing, suave and svelte as Fox.  We root for him, even when we are surprised by his mendacity.  The others are merely mechanical in their ruthlessness, on cue with their targeting.  If Moriarity was ingenuous for Sherlock Holmes, Fox is casual and charming as The Jackal, which we learn is French for the beginning of the first and last names of an Englishman suspected of being The Jackal, erroneously, it turns out.

Edward Fox

Edward Fox plays the Jackal

The movie begins with an assassination attempt on General de Gaulle led by Jean Sorel, the second most attractive French actor after Alain Delon. 

The attempt, the most recent of several by groups unhappy that the general gave independance to Algeria, fails but some of its organizers decide to hire "The Jackal" who allegedly had assassinate Trujillo a couple of years before.  The Jackal tells them that his fee is $500,000, half upfront, noting that the fee is not expensive since he "would handing them France."

They agree, but have to rob some banks first to raise the cash.

The French authorities capture a member of their group and torture him only to learn after a lot of inflicted pain the name "Jackal," but they have neither full name or a photograph.

In his July 30, 1973 review of the film, Roger Ebert declares that “The Day of the Jackal” is one hell of an exciting movie."

"The 'jackal' of the title is the code name for a man who may (or may not) be a British citizen specializing in professional assassinations. He allegedly killed Trujillo of the Dominican Republic in 1961 and, now, two years later, he has been hired by a group of Frenchmen who want de Gaulle assassinated."

Fox buying rifle from Cusack

Fox examining custom rifle made by Cyril Cusack at left

"...The government has received information that an attempt will be made on de Gaulle’s life. The general absolutely insists that he will make no changes in his public schedule, and that any attempt to prevent an assassination must be made in secret. The French police cooperate 'unofficially' with the top police forces of other nations in attempting an apprehension. But they don’t even know who the jackal is. How can they stop him? The movie provides a fascinating record of police investigative work, which combines exhaustive checking with intuition. But the jackal is clever, too, particularly when he’s cornered. Some of the movie’s finest moments come after the jackal’s false identity is discovered and his license plates and description are distributed. He keeps running - and always convincingly; this isn’t a movie about a killer with luck, but about one of uncommon intelligence and nerve."

“The Day of the Jackal” is two and a half hours long and seems over in about fifteen minutes. There are some words you hesitate to use in a review, because they sound so much like advertising copy, but in this case I can truthfully say that the movie is spellbinding."

Jean Sorel

Jean Sorel, the leader of an assassination attempt on General de Gaulle

The Algerian War was waged by France from 1954 until 1962. De Gaulle's granting of Algerian independence (see The City Review's article on "The Battle of Algiers") evidently raised the hackles of members of the Organisation armee secrete (OAS), and they staged an assassination attempt that saw de Gaulle's motorcade assaulted with a barrage of machine gun fire, all to no avail. The conspirators, whose leader was played in the film by Jean Sorel, were quickly rounded up, with the leader meeting his fate at the hands of a firing squad whom the leader was convinced would not shoot him. All of this OAS activity is documented in brief and appealing concise fashion in the opening moments of the movie.

"One of the things that helps to establish a baseline of anxiety which almost runs rampant through the film is the character of The Jackal himself," Jeffrey Kauffman wrote in his December 10, 2017 review of the film at

Dephine Seyrig

Delphine Seyrig, star of "Last Year at Marienbad," is seduced by Fox

When The Jackal finds out in a rare contact with his employers that the French authorities know of his existence and his license plate, he decides to seduce an attractive baroness, played by Delphine Seyrig, the star of "Last Year at Marienbad" (see The City Review article), at an Alpine resort.

Jackal in bed with lover

Fox realizes he must kill Delphine who just told him the police were asking about him

The baroness leaves the resort but not before The Jackal gets her address and soon follows her home to continue their affair.  In bed, she tells him that the police had just visited her and asked questions about him.  He smokes a cigarette in bed with him and then quickly and quietly kills her.

"This is one 'smooth operator,' a seemingly inherently suave sort who is nonetheless almost appallingly vicious at times. In fact one of the story's repeatedly disturbing aspects is just how unperturbed The Jackal is when he's confronted by 'little' obstacles like people who may know too much for their own good. Let's just say that aside and apart from any attempted murder of Charles de Gaulle, there's an accruing body count in this film as The Jackal goes about his appointed rounds attempting to arrange a supposedly foolproof way to off the French President.  There's a cat and mouse game that starts ensuing once some intelligence services and police officials get wind of the plot, but even here the film would seem to defy expectations since it's a given that The Jackal is not going to ultimately succeed in his plan....a couple of the most visceral moments in the film are when The Jackal is suddenly confronted by something unexpected, which is when his feral tendencies show themselves," Mr. Kauffman observed.

Michael Lonsdale looking for Foix on Liberation Day

Michael Lonsdale looking for Fox on Liberation Day

The French official heading the search for The Jackal is played by Michael Lonsdale with a fine tinge of desperation and determination. 

Alan Badel

Alan Badel plays the Minister of the Interior

The French Minister of the Interior, played by Alan Badel, has an impossible task of trying to catch the assassin, especially when it is discovered that a member of his cabinet was sleeping with a woman very sympathetic with the O.A.S. and able to seduce him with her dog while he is horse-back riding. 

Badel tells Lonsdale that as head of the pursuit he is the most powerful man in France and the detective looses no time in exercising that power.

In his May 17, 1973 review of the movie in The New York Times, Vincent Canby notes that "Frederick Forsyth novel, which was written for the screen by Kenneth Ross, belongs to a very special subcategory of fiction - one that leave me cold but apparently fascinates two out of every three people in the Free World who can afford to buy adventure novels in hardback editions."  "Because history has tipped us off that no one ever did assassinate De Gaulle, the suspense of the novel and the film must depend on our wondering just how the assassin is gaoing to fail.  This prolonged failure also allows us to hope rather tentatively for his success.  We can identify with him in a way that we certainly not allow outselves with an Oswald or a Ray," Mr. Canby continued, not bothering to point out that De Gaulle was not the most lovable world leader.

The Jackal on his way to his sniper's perch

The Jackal on his way to his sniper's perch

Mr. Canby states that he movie is "virtually encyclopedic in describing the assassin's preparations" including extensive research of birth records, securing identity papers and hair dyes.  "Zinneman's way with his material is cool, sober and geographically stunning," he noted, ending his review that he has "no doubt it will be a smash."

Testing the rifle

Testing the rifle

The film ends with a lengthy overview of the Liberation Day festivities and preparations and then ends with a grey-haired cripple staggering his way through security to his apartment overlooking the square where De Gaulle will officiate.

We are sad, and guilty, when this anti-hero doesn't "get" his man even though we knew all along that he wouldn't, which is why this remarkable "What If" movie is so daring, memorable and mind-boggling.

This film is ranked 72nd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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