‘The Day of The Jackal’ or — Bond Goes Freelance?
Every time I re-revisit Fred Zinnemann’s ‘The Day of The Jackal’ (1973) — and I re-visit this film quite often — the more it impresses me every time. It’s the meticulousness in how it’s put together, Zinnemann holding the movie up on his fingertips like a perfectly balanced rifle. Music is removed entirely, action is almost nonexistent and we never become remotely close to knowing anything about our lead, let alone empathising with him; this is a thriller as stripped down as an assassin’s weapon.
So what’s left, apart from the inevitability of death? The (in)efficacy of systems, the pressure of time and the thrill of one man against the might of the intelligence network of an entire Continent. The intelligence services have the benefit of practically limitless resources and overwhelming manpower but can only function as fast as these large structures will allow; the Jackal is one man but can move quickly and adapt plus, most importantly, it’s his plan.
The audience spends a lot of time with the Jackal, intimately so, but we’re often as dumbfounded as the police by his actions — what’s he doing with these Old Spice bottles? Why does he want his skin to look grey at some unspecified time in the future? It involves detective work to figure everything out and that’s what makes ‘The Day of The Jackal’ so exciting with Zinnemann never treating us with anything other than intelligence (this also explains why watching this film when I was 12 years old made me feel as though I was a grown-up before I was). A good example of letting the audience feel a twang of satisfaction is when the Jackal is called into a French customs office, the only sign something is up being how every other person being questioned is a male of the same age, height and hair-colouring. The Jackal silently notices along with us and we get the thrill of knowing what it must be like to be an assassin for a few seconds.
There is one piece of explicit violence and it’s towards a piece of fruit. It sounds innocuous but in execution and implication it’s chilling and surprisingly sickening. It illustrates the consequences of failure and how, either way, death is the destination.
We might not get to know the Jackal as a character but we witness his movement towards death, starting the film as a confident, young man and slowly, almost imperceptibly, moving through the stages of life until he is finally an old man at the end of the line. This is the reason James Bond can never consider his own mortality as it’s this that keeps his aging process at bay.
And is the Jackal James Bond if he’d quit MI6 and went into freelance business for himself? Each time I re-watch the film I think ‘yes’. There is too much blame laid at the UK’s feet as one of the world’s biggest arms dealers and proud history of producing top-class murderous psychopaths who will happily knock-off an elected leader for the right price. We don’t find out who the Jackal is but that’s possibly because we already know — he’s the entire British establishment condensed into one man. And if he wasn’t quite so English he might not have let his lapse of French etiquette ultimately trip him up.
‘The Day of The Jackal’ is one of the best thrillers ever made, perfectly combining excitement, intelligence and intrigue with utterly expert precision. It’s also an incredibly beautiful film with the camerawork being both realistically natural and cinematically gorgeous. The entire screen captures the Parisian light and air, helping to further immerse even more fully into the unfolding events. Like Edward Fox himself, death has never looked quite so perfect.