In 1973, Fred Zinneman’s The Day of the Jackal hit theaters and for a movie that is 50 years old, it’s still as spry and dramatic as ever. Based on the 1971 novel of the same name, it is the story of the attempted assassination of French President Charles de Gaulle by a top-tier political assassin, a man who is as shady and anonymous as de Gaulle is mindfully visible.
Anatomy of a Plot
Though most of the events in this movie didn’t really happen, some did. There were some thirty attempts on the life of Charles de Gaulle, with the serious one from August 22, 1962, represented in the film. This took place in a Paris suburb when almost 200 bullets struck the President’s vehicle in about 45 seconds. However, even though the entire story arc brings the audience to the moment of the Jackal’s extremely well-thought-out assassination attempt, this is not it. This is where the movie begins – a different, failed, attempt at de Gaulle’s life. It is the repercussions from this event that shape the events of the movie and lead viewers to the Jackal’s own crescendo.
Lots of people want to know how to transform your body from unfit to fit and they simply need to follow the Jackal’s lead. To him, life is simply a matter of will and discipline. It is the 1960s and a French terrorist group has managed to identify him as an assassin that they want to hire to kill de Gaulle. The audience knows neither how they’ve managed to reach him, nor who he is. After he meets with the OAS (French resistance group) leaders in Rome, and takes the mission, he shows the audience how adept he is at claiming new identities. The treasonous parties agree on the Jackal as a codename, and he gets to work.
Anatomy of a Manhunt
Detective Claude Lebel is tasked with finding and capturing the Jackal. Though he has the power of the entire French government at his disposal, he does not want the job. It is simply too stressful. However, the job is thrust upon him and he is forced to make nightly debriefings to the French Ministers, who lob questions at him that he cannot answer.
The thrust of this movie comes from what Lebel’s boss tells the ministers: they only have a codename and nothing more. There is nobody to arrest and no crime has been committed. They do not know what he looks like or what his timeline is. For a long time, there is only the faintest notion that he exists, at all.
Anatomy of a Masterpiece
In this movie, there is honor and villainy found on both sides of the law. While an arrogant French minister who looks down his nose at Lebel is found to be giving critically sensitive information to his lover, who is an OAS mole, the man to whom the Jackal obtains his cleverly singular weapon displays the honor of a businessman who knows the value of his word.
The Day of the Jackal shows audiences the sights and sounds of 1960s Paris and the French countryside as the villain skulks around while the police search en masse for him. That they don’t know precisely who they’re looking for but still make tremendous gains in their investigation speaks to Lebel’s brilliance and the power of basic police work. That the Jackal proves to be so slippery speaks to his own brilliant professionalism. This movie is like a pot of water brought to a slow boil, with loads of celluloid goodness along the way.
The Day of the Jackal is a political thriller but stands up as an excellent movie against any genre or era. Although there is violence, it captures your attention without showing gratuitous amounts of it. The threat of it surrounds the Jackal and those with whom he comes into contact, but the movie doesn’t dwell on it. There are too many other things to focus on. There are Shakespearean elements, such as the speeding up of time for tension and villains hiding in plain sight. The acting is as excellent as the writing, with understated being the operative word.