Review: The Day of the Jackal

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

The critical ascendancy of Fred Zinnemann has always bewildered me. Still more bewildering is the question of how to engage his inadequacy in critical terms. How about this? Fred Zinnemann is the sort of filmmaker who gives good taste a bad name. His work is pretentious, and the pretentiousness is of a special kind: a pretense to delicacy, to discretion; an ostentatious avoidance of emotional excess and dramatic patness. Even in a film taken from a prize-winning historical play, A Man for All Seasons (1966), with a screenplay still rife with pregnant lines and deftly turned speeches, one kept having a sense of the event—if not necessarily the point—passing one by, so that when a last-moment narrator ticked off the ignominious comeuppances of Sir Thomas More’s persecutors following upon his dispatch, one chuckled not only at the intended irony but also at the unintentional one: that this turning of the tables of historical justice (or irrelevance) didn’t quite matter either.

The Day of the Jackal, Zinnemann’s first film since, extends the tendency even further, into the realm of virtual non-event. And again the phenomenon exerts a curious, for-elitists-only fascination: the film is a marvel of efficiency that offers nothing marvelous and really isn’t even efficient, almost by definition. Lord knows Frederick Forsyth’s book was utterly undistinguished as literature, but its tried-and-true bestseller method succeeded after a fashion: overwhelm the reader with names, places, believable-sounding facts, relate them in an impersonal computer-style voice that enhances the spurious air of authoritative documentation, and let him beguile himself if he’s of a mind to. Zinnemann has a voice as impersonal as they come, but he has talent, he knows his classical film language, and he ought to have been able to come up with some sort of movie equivalent of the bestseller. But it’s a funny thing, the sort of funny thing we love movies for. In the theater one has to see something; in the theater one looks at faces, rooms, streets, colors, planes. In the very special space-time experience of watching a film, one ventures into areas of psychological, behavioral, above all emotional susceptibility that aren’t necessarily there in a scene’s equivalent on the printed page. If we trick ourselves into feeling something in response to a neutrally written scene, we can properly and clearheadedly trace the cause to our own psyche(s), and enjoy the sensation, but never confuse it with the writer’s art—it’s something that happens in our playing of the scene on that movie screen in our heads. But that other movie screen, the one we see real movies on, is another matter. Conversely, when confronted with a multifariously specific, necessarily restricted and controlled space-time reality, we need to feel the presence of that previous “reader”—by definition, the film director who has become responsible for what’s projected. When he’s there, wonderful things can happen. That’s why what may well be trash in another medium (fiction, drama) can give rise to something infinitely more touching, more moving, more aesthetically valid when it’s translated—transfigured—into film.

But Zinnemann isn’t there. Or rather, the Zinnemann who is there, who is recognizable if you want to recognize him, doesn’t believe in or care about the mysterious process I have tried to index. He mostly adopts Forsyth’s scenario pretty literally, and his feeling for it is literal as well. But a conscientiously drab scene-moment from which has been excluded personality (of the character, who in most cases never had one; of the actor, who is always prevented from doing anything movie-star–like; of the director, whose personality is impersonality) doesn’t play the same as that kind of scene in the book. The mind does a lot of work for a book that it won’t, can’t, do for a film. The mind can take time, even subliminally, to let us feel what it’s like for a man to sit up all night contemplating an intellectual problem in a detective game for internationally high stakes; but Zinnemann can’t spare enough time in his film even to build a montage that might suggest such human experience in time and space, and the fact that one such scene-moment instantly displaces another denies the viewer a chance to work out in empathy with the character and in sympathy with the narrator. So the film Day of the Jackal lacks even the intellectually minimal but by no means experientially negligible urgency of its pulp counterpart.

But aren’t there “feelings” in those occasional “touches”? Olga Georges-Picot, for example, dropping a tear as she watches a comrade burn the photo and love letters that would link her to her politically undesirable, and also deceased, fiancé. No. there aren’t. There’s just a presence there pretending to good taste, reticence: we have, essentially, the cliché and, simultaneously, a refusal to recognize the cliché and, having recognized it, to acknowledge some response to it. Zinnemann’s response is to run, to run without hitting, as it were; he’s so busy avoiding facileness—which at least implies being facile about something—that he gives us nothing but a stylistic plenum: a filled space, space filled with the ostentatious refusal to fill it with anything else….

Oh yes, the consumer report. Well, The Day of the Jackal is about a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle in the early Sixties. The Jackal is a blond Anglo-Saxon killer hired by the leaders of the OAS to get the job done, in his own way, at his own time. The highest officials in de Gaulle’s government get wind of the fact that there is a plot and there is a Jackal—nothing more. The narrative cuts back and forth between the killer’s progress toward his murderous rendezvous and the government’s attempt to identify him and stop him without violating the top secrecy insisted on by the arrogant French president himself. Edward Fox (Julie Christie’s betrothed in The Gobetween) is visually perfect as the Jackal, but he needs something tangibly human to play against if his perversity is to find eloquent release, and he gets it only from a few briefly seen people: Cyril Cusack as a discreetly fussy artist among gunsmiths, Delphine Seyrig as a sexually ambivalent French noblewoman he encounters and improvises with in his travels, and the (as far as I know) unnamed player enacting the homosexual who picks the Jackal up and unwittingly offers him the haven he requires to stay loose on the crucial eve of the double manhunt.

In respect to two of these occur, interestingly enough, the only significant and salutary departures from the novel I noted. After having spent the night with the Jackal at a country inn, Seyrig is given dramatic indication by the police that he is somehow a singular and dangerous man, so that when he arrives unexpectedly at her château to continue their frolicking, her reactions to his presence are dramatically complex and affectingly indecisive. And whereas in the novel there is explicit indication that the Jackal managed to refrain from accommodating his homosexual host, in the film no such disclaimer is made and we are left with an even more disturbing sense of his perverse adaptability.

I should also admit that, while for convenience’s sake I visualized Philippe Noiret in the role of Lebel, the police bureaucrat made personally responsible for stopping the Jackal, Zinnemann’s casting of Michel Lonsdale is to be preferred. There is an unshakeable conviction of a barely latent tenderness and irrepressible humor about Noiret, no matter what sort of nebbish he portrays. Lonsdale, so memorable as the unloved shoe-store owner in Stolen Kisses and the fatuous rake and provincial politico in The Bride Wore Black, manages the extremely difficult task of commanding our regard (the film picks up considerably once he enters) while never violating the humorlessness and colorlessness specifically written into the character.

RTJ

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL
Direction: Fred Zinnemann. Screenplay: Kenneth Ross, after the novel by Frederick Forsyth. Cinematography: Jean Tournier. Music: Georges Delerue. Production: John Woolf.
The Players: Edward Fox, Michel Lonsdale, Alan Badel, Delphine Seyrig, Cyril Cusack, Olga Georges-Picot, Maurice Denham, Tony Britton, Derek Jacobi, Jean Martin.

2016 postscript: I read this with fascination and not a little embarrassment. With repeat viewings over ensuing decades, I’ve come to respect, admire, and even thrill to this advisedly dry motion picture, which moreover has climbed onto my Ten Best list for 1973. Was I wrong the first time around? (Am I now right?) I do feel I was straining at the time to polish my fledgling auteurist credentials—Zinnemann was one of the Oscared eminences targeted for toppling as a “fallen idol,” “less than meets the eye.” But I also truly did have a serious problem getting a handle on just what sort of master director his admirers took him to be, and my aforementioned embarrassment is somewhat relieved by the fact that I did manage to articulate my reservations. —RTJ

Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson


Leave a Reply