Sunday, 1 February 2009

'The Day of the Jackal' Movie (1973)

As regular readers of the blog know, I am interested in the what might have beens of history.  One that has always intrigued me is the possibility of the assassination of General Charles De Gaulle, especially when he was the President of France (1958-69) and overseeing the withdrawal of France from its colony (since 1830) of Algeria.  He was a politically ambivalent figure seeming to side with the military and to reassure colonialists concerns, but also defending democracy and extricating France from Algeria.  However, the steps to leave Algeria, in the face of Algerian nationalist opposition to continued rule, provoked hostility from elements of the French Army.  The opposition element organised a terrorist group, the OAS, with the intention of killing De Gaulle and also staging a coup to overthrow the government.

De Gaulle faced 31 assassination attempts during his life. There are few people in history who could not have been replaced by someone else and the world have witnessed a similar outcome. However, I believe, De Gaulle stands beside Bismarck in terms of being a man whose death would immediately have led history down different pathways, even, one might argue, after they had retired, let alone at the height of their activities. I will do a proper 'what if?' posting on De Gaulle another time, but wanted to indicate why I have been drawn to the book, and especially the movie, of 'The Day of the Jackal'. The small differences between the story in the two formats are nicely summarised at IMDB, see: and there are more details on the Wikipedia entry for the movie.

The novel of 'The Day of the Jackal' was written by newspaper and television journalist Frederick Forsyth (born 1938) and published in 1971, the year after De Gaulle had died of natural causes. It was Forsyth's first novel of the fifteen he has published so far. He has also written non-fiction on aspects of African politics. He left the BBC in 1968 after allegations of bias towards the breakaway African state of Biafra and, in 1973, he helped finance a coup in Equiatorial Guinea. Forsyth has been a bestselling author with a number of his books becoming movies, including 'The Odessa File' (novel 1972; movie 1974, also features Derek Jacobi who is in the movie 'The Day of the Jackal'), 'The Dogs of War' (novel 1974; movie 1981) drawing on Forsyth's coup experiences and 'The Fourth Protocol' (novel 1984; movie 1987).

'The Day of the Jackal' begins with actual historical events, notably the Petit Clamart assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle in which, in August 1962,OAS assassins fired over 100 bullets into his car in the Paris suburb of Petit Clamart. De Gaulle survived and was able to escape because he was in a Citreon DS.  All models of this car have specific self-levelling hydraulic suspension and so allowed the skilled driver to continue driving even when two of the tyres on one side had been shot out. The car did not have bullet proof glass. Aside from De Gaulle and his driver, De Gaulle's wife, Yvonne, and son-in-law, Colonel Alain de Boissieu were in the car.  De Gaulle was more angered that his wife, who was riding beside him in the car, had been targeted, (having been a soldier most of his life, he presumably had long ago reckoned he might be shot) and so accelerated the sentencing of the conspirators and insisted on their execution, generally ignoring the standard legal processes.

In the book and movie the next step the OAS take in 1963, following the execution of the Petit Clamart attackers, is to hire a British assassin to kill De Gaulle. Of course, we all know that the assassin, known as 'the Jackal', cannot succeed as this is not a counter-factual book, but the skill of the story is in still keeping us interested. To some extent, it is the technical aspects that draw us in and these come from two perspectives. The first is the preparations by the Jackal and the second is the work carried out by the French and British police to identify and try to stop him. This is the kind of challenge that the forthcoming 'Valkyrie' movie about the real-life attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944 will face, though it seems that they have engaged audiences through adopting a thriller-style approach.

It is difficult to put a finger on how the 'The Day of the Jackal' movie manages to make you interested in long-drawn out preparations, but it does. It is pretty tightly edited and various meetings among British and French security officials are handled differently on each occasion so that they do not appear too samey. There are some hurried moments, especially in the closing minutes of the movie, but, in fact, for a lot of the time things move very tranquilly, raising the tension steadily. The interesting thing is that there are large stretches of the movie in which no-one speaks and incidental music intrudes only from sources that the characters encounter. There is a long stretch in which we see the preparation for the liberation day ceremony in which we only hear background conversation and the music from the military bands.

One interesting thing about the movie is how amoral the characters are. Clearly the 'hero' is an assassin who we know has killed leading politicians before. In the movie he kills three people: a forger and a woman and a man whose house and flat he has used, respectively. This violence is often muted, shown in shadow or out of view. However, it does not make him a sympathetic character. He seduces the woman and the man simply so that he can use their properties.

Now, I think it is the casting of Edward Fox (born 1937), as the Jackal, which aided this element so much. Fox was 36 at the time and looked the archetypal English gentleman (he had been a lieutenant in the elite Coldstream Guards in his youth, one of his daughters is now a viscountess). He is very handsome, suave even, and this makes it credible that he could pick up women or men in the way that he seems to with ease. To some extent, this behaviour may be a touch anachronistic for 1963 and is more about 1973 moral behaviour, but it does not stretch belief that far. The way he goes about picking up and discarding people using sex, stands out even today and would no doubt have been quite stunning in 1973. Homosexuality in the UK had only been decriminalised in 1969 so, to see a straightforward, clearly gay pick-up, effectively 'normalised', was unusual especially in a movie which was about a different topic, not sexuality.

I cannot believe that the other candidates for the role of the Jackal would have worked at all: Michael Caine (born 1933), though possibly back in the days of 'The Ipcress File' (1965) he would have suited, but 8 years later, at the age of 40, he would have looked wrong. Jack Nicholson (born 1937) never could have been a convincing Englishman: his face is physically too American.  Roger Moore (born 1927 - so 46 by 1973) has the English gentleman appearance, but is useless at acting and would have seemed like a robot in this role that has little dialogue.

Fox works because he is convincing physically and acts well when not speaking. However, as was noted at the time, he was not particularly well known, in contrast to these other actors. I look at the other British actors involved below, but none of them, despite often having long careers was really a leading man. In addition, about half the cast was French making them unfamiliar to English-speaking audiences. De Gaulle is not heard to speak in the movie and is only seen at a distance, so there is no sense of him as a hero trying to avert an assassination attempt on him. In fact, De Gaulle, in reality, was very blase about attempts on his own life, especially having survived so many.  He did not even duck when the bullets tore into his car at Petit Clamart.

In 'Easy Rider' (1969), Nicholson, of course, had already famously played in a movie as a hero who dies at the end. Caine had notably appeared in 'Get Carter' (1971) which is again very amoral with the 'hero' acting in a brutal way throughout and dying at the end. However, I think his Jackal would have been a more working class, like Carter, than an upper class character. Perhaps his Jackal would have been like his anti-hero in the Harry Palmer films ('The Ipcress File'; 'Funeral in Berlin' (1966) and 'The Billion Dollar Brain' (1967)). It is interesting to think, given that Caine lobbied for the role of the Jackal, where he saw his career going in the early 1970s. A higher profile actor may have attracted a different audience, but it may have raised tensions.

In some ways it is clear that the movie was filmed in 1973. France was in a far better economic state than it had been in 1963. The movie is almost entirely shot on location, using real places such as the reading room of the British Library, run-down parts of Genoa and genuine locations in Paris, so the contemporary features could not be by-passed. The dress of the public is less stark than it would have been in 1963 and, as is noted on Wikipedia, there are vehicles featured that were not built in 1963. To some extent, the scale of the final scene with the public display compelled the movie makers to go with what they could get. The anachronisms do not jar immensely as they are background rather than where the focus of the story is. The abrupt change from hot sunny weather to post-rainfall when De Gaulle appears to give the medals is rather more unsettling. Trainspotters note that the Jackal sets off for Paris with one locomotive and arrives with a different one, but I imagine, as happens nowadays  in reality, even then, sometimes, locomotives were switched mid-route.

The other side, the authorities, you would assume, would have the moral authority to and that we, the audience, would be able to affiliate with them. However, quite cleverly, the story avoids that, even more so in the movie than in the book, primarily because the leading French detective on the case Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (played by Anglo-French actor Michael Lonsdale (born 1931)) is not henpecked by his wife. We are interested in Lebel and his assistant, Inspector Caron (played by Sir Derek Jacobi (born 1938 - he holds both a British and a Danish knighthood) rushing all over France trying to track down the man, but they are working for an amoral government.

The British side are involved in a pretty half-hearted way, primarily given the frosty relations between the governments of De Gaulle and Britain's Harold Macmillan of the time. It is interesting in how they uncover what the Jackal has done, but you feel the British are not overly bothered if De Gaulle is killed. To some extent the British are shown almost as caricatures of southern and northern English detectives and officials. Terence Alexander (born 1923) is the mannered gentlemanly MI6 contact, Lloyd; Donald Sinden (born 1923) as the blustering, indignant leading Scotland Yard detective, Mallinson; Tony Britton (born 1924) as the northern English Special Branch detective, Inspector Thomas.  However, to some extent, that reflects how the audience would expect such characters to appear. British actors also play French: OAS members Colonel Rodin (Eric Porter; 1928-1995); Montclair (David Swift; born 1931) and officials General Colbert (Maurice Denham; 1909-2002); Bernard (Anton Rogers 1933-2007); Bethier (Timothy West; born 1956) and Italians: the Forger (Ronald Pickup; born 1940) and the Gunsmith, Gazzio (Cyril Cusack; 1910-93).

Now, as to the amorality of the French government. This is to a great extent based on reality. De Gaulle was willing to let the authorities behave in a way that is reminiscent of how the Israeli government agents behaved in the 1960s in seeking out Nazis and how the US government has worked to stop al-Qaeda. De Gaulle had the Action Squads, his 'barbouzes' as he called them, that could effectively act outside the law. This involved both abducting people from other states with no concern for what these governments thought and using torture to gain information. Thus, we know that, even the respectable policemen and officials shown in the movie, are working on information derived from torture.

This ambivalence was characteristic of De Gaulle's regime: it was felt necessary to behave in dictatorial ways in order to defend democracy from threat and that argument escapes generally unchallenged today. So, even though we may have sympathy with a couple of the authority characters, this is limited and we are left with agencies working with amoral/immoral methods to stop a man behaving both amorally and immorally. Perhaps this is why the movie was not a commercial success. People, even in the 1970s, wanted some genuine heroes.

The quality of the movie, I believe, stems in a large part from its director Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997).  He was the director of movies such as 'High Noon' (1952), 'From Here to Eternity' (1953), 'A Man for All Seasons' (1966), 'Julia' (1977) and what I feel is an under-rated movie, 'Behold a Pale Horse' (1964 - about the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War). Zinnemann who was born in Austria-Hungary never shied away from politically interesting movies, often featuring aspects of the fight against Nazism and the consequences of the Second World War as in 'Act of Violence' (1948) and 'The Men' (1950 about disabled war veterans). It might seem odd that Zinnemann, who had a vein of morality in his heroes, would come to the amoral Jackal. However, if we think about the fact that the state machine countering the Jackal also behaves in an amoral way, it does throw up interesting questions for those watching his movies that he might have sought to raise.

To some extent Zinnemann touches on similar issues in 'Behold a Pale Horse' but, given that the hero/terrorist/assassin is going up against General Franco's regime, and one particularly nasty police official, we can sympathise more easily with him than we can the Jackal. Zinnemann's skill lifts 'The Day of the Jackal' from being just another thriller and keeps that tension up even when you know the likely outcome. Thus, if you want a thriller which has interesting period feel (even with the anachronisms) and style, will engage you when you do not expect it and will leave you thinking about the behaviour of individuals and the state, then I recommend you watch this movie.

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