Based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Day of the Jackal starts from an almost intractable premise. Is it possible to generate suspense about an event that the audience knows not only did not happen but could not happen without re-writing history? Telling the story of the efforts of the French police to stop a fictional attempt on the life of Charles DeGaulle, the film doesn’t so much answer that question as ignore it. It’s as if the filmmakers think that by proceeding as matter-of-factly as possible, the audience will forget, or at least willingly ignore, what they know coming into the theater.
If the situation does take on a life of its own, it is in no small part because of the cold efficiency and opaque motivations of the killer, played with chillingly total control by Edward Fox. No move, no action, no line reading is anything other than “the Jackal,” a feat all the more remarkable given that we never even know the character’s real name. Fox gives the Jackal’s professionalism and determination to fulfill his obligations a kind of bleak, nihilistic integrity. We follow his painstaking preparations in such minute detail that after a while we have a perverse desire to see him finish his job. No one who does his work so well deserves to be thwarted.
This is a “procedural” thriller in the extreme, in which the machine-like proficiency of the killer is matched by the equal tenacity of his antagonist, the policeman Lebel (Michel Lonsdale). Lebel is a largely colorless character made compelling by Lonsdale’s ability to make the policeman’s very ordinariness charming. If there is a problem in having these two matching wits, it is that the story doesn’t allow them any time together. You long to see Lebel/Lonsdale and Jackal/Fox parry and thrust in person. Instead, we have to content ourselves with the awareness that it is the very similarity of the two characters that generates the story’s tension and keeps events moving.
Only a director with an intelligence as cool and assured as the Jackal’s could handle a script this burdened with exposition, characters and locations. Fred Zinnemann was a calm, reticent story-teller content to disappear into the background. His skill in quietly mapping out the story’s territory, however, should not be taken for granted. In lesser hands, this script would result in a mess. Zinnemann manages the heroic feat of nudging things forward, maintaining our interest in an ever-broader and more complex canvas, without breaking a sweat. Paradoxically, it is the very placidity of his approach which heightens the suspense. For if you know the Jackal will be defeated, you wonder how the slightly bumbling Lebel is going to do it.
To say, then, that The Day of the Jackal is a good story well told brings us back to the paradox of knowing the ending before things start. That we can become engrossed in a foregone conclusion is no mean achievement.