The Day of the Jackal (Blu-ray)

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The Day of the Jackal (Blu-ray)

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Review of "The Day of the Jackal (Blu-ray)"

published 09/10/2017 | hogsflesh
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"Fox on the run"

Zut alors! Look out, General de Gaulle!

Zut alors! Look out, General de Gaulle!

This blu-ray release from Arrow is about £15 on amazon and in HMV at the moment.

This is a classic movie based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel about an assassin’s attempt to kill President de Gaulle. The director, Fred Zinnemann, hailed from the classic days of Hollywood, where he was generally known for worthier fare (High Noon, a suspense movie that is really about the evils of McCarthyism; the snoozefest that is From Here To Eternity; Oklahoma; that film where Audrey Hepburn played a nun; A Man For All Seasons). You really wouldn’t have thought he’d have something like this in him, but it’s a cracking good thriller; if it only shaved 15 minutes off, would be up there with the all-time greats.

De Gaulle was a great hero of the French Resistance during the war. He escaped to Britain and pretty much appointed himself alternative head of state in opposition to the Nazi collaborationist regime of Pétain. However, when he found himself president of France in the late 50s, there was a war of independence raging in the French colony of Algeria. De Gaulle outraged the French right (and many French who were resident in Algeria) by granting the colony independence. This made him the target of several assassination attempts by the OAS, a French terrorist organisation.

Year: 1973
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Stars: Edward Fox
More information at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069947
IMDB user rating: 7.8

Day of the Jackal is an account of what might have happened had the OAS hired an outsider, a professional hitman, to bump off de Gaulle, instead of relying on their own men. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with recent European history will probably be able to guess how the story ends, but regardless, it’s a damn good thriller. We watch the almost emotionless assassin meticulously prepare, while the police slowly piece together clues to his identity as they try desperately to catch up with him before he catches up with de Gaulle.

Edward Fox was more or less obscure when he played the Jackal – the director wanted an unknown as he felt a star would be unconvincing as a master of disguise. Fox has never been better than as the cold, professional hitman, only rarely showing satisfaction about anything outside his job. Apart from his almost constant smoking, he doesn’t seem to have many vices. He seduces women and men, but only to make sure he can hide out in their homes or hotel rooms. We never learn much about him, except that he’s very good at his job and seems vaguely upper class.

Up against Fox is Michael Lonsdale as the French Inspector Lebel. I was a bit wary of the character at first, as the fact that he kept pigeons and was scruffy seemed to be a contrived attempt at making him ‘eccentric’, but he soon settles down to be another capable professional who, apart from occasional frustration at how tough his job is, is similarly emotionless. Lonsdale is probably best known as the villain in Moonraker, but is in lots of other things, including the BBC’s Smiley’s People, and he’s always good value.

The film has an amazing cast, with an astounding array of well-known faces, often in very small roles. The French authorities include a young Derek Jacobi (not showing many signs of the acting powerhouse he was soon to become, it must be said); Timothy West; Alan Badel; Maurice Denham from Night of the Demon; the always-great Vernon Dobtcheff as a torturer; and even Jess Franco’s favourite leading man, Howard Vernon in a silent role. Not to mention a decent de Gaulle lookalike.

The OAS are represented by Eric Porter and someone from Drop the Dead Donkey, but their bagman is played by Jean Martin, a great piece of casting. Martin had played the Colonel in charge of the French army in The Battle of Algiers (1968), the classic movie account of the war de Gaulle ended, and it’s easy to imagine this is the same guy a few years later. The British cops are represented by Donald Sinden, Terence Alexander, future sitcom star Tony Britton and future Dr Who villain Bernard Archard.

The Jackal is assisted by a magnificently scuzzy Ronald Pickup as a forger and an apologetic, almost ethereal Cyril Cusack as a gunmaker. Along the way he has romantic interludes with another future sitcom star, Anton Rogers, and (more substantially) with Delphine Seyrig, the star of Daughters of Darkness among other things. I can’t think of many films with this kind of top-to-bottom casting excellence, in which almost everyone is recognisable, and everyone gives a totally appropriate performance without showboating (although Cusack steals his scenes without any apparent effort, as was his wont).

Zinnemann (and presumably Forsyth) understood that the best part of a mission film is the build-up – watching the meticulous planning is great fun, and makes it all the more tense when we know what’s meant to happen and how it all starts to unravel (see, for instance, war films like The Great Escape, or The Eagle Has Landed). Watching the Jackal forge a new identity, practice firing at a watermelon, and buy hair dye from a not terribly competent shop assistant is far more interesting than two hours of car chases and fist fights would be. The film knows when to throw in a quick murder or torture scene to keep us on our toes – this is a thriller, after all – but it lets us follow the assassin and the cops as they both slowly converge on the same point.

It’s directed with a minimum of fuss, trusting the story to carry the film without any fancy business. Most sources (including the back of the Blu-ray box) stress its ‘documentary’ feel, which I think is pushing it a bit, but it certainly keeps things simple. It only loses focus towards the end, with what felt like a bit too much crowd stuff at the film’s climax. The build-up to the big event goes on far too long, and instead of ratcheting up the suspense, as was presumably the intention, it starts to get boring. The film is a slightly unreasonable two and a half hours long.

The 15 certificate is presumably because of a couple of topless scenes, although they’re not particularly smutty. The violence doesn’t really go much beyond Bond levels, although the torture scene is probably nasty enough to bump the film up a couple of ratings.

It’s a big budget movie with lots of impressive location work and a good soundtrack by the great Georges Delerue. In short, it’s a classy piece of work. It shows what happens, I guess, when a classic Hollywood director engages with the new freedoms the 70s have to offer, both in terms of subject matter and artistry. It’s not overtly about sexual freedom or politics, but benefits from the fashion to be open about both, and is a rollicking entertainment that doesn’t shove its artistry down your throat. As such, I think it stands up rather better than some of the iconic 70s Hollywood renaissance films that are still revered from the around the same time – Five Easy Pieces, say – which are trying so desperately hard to be profound that they end up being rather annoying. Day of the Jackal is effortlessly entertaining.
Blu-ray

The film looks great. It has quite muted colours, presumably in keeping with the low-key feel of the direction, although there’s the odd splash of strong colour. There’s plenty of detail (it does tend to expose unconvincing grey hair makeup, but never mind), and most importantly, the film grain is clearly visible without overwhelming the picture. This looks excellent.

The extras are a bit of a disappointment, though, especially for Arrow, a company which usually goes a bit overboard on extras. The main one features Neil Sinyard, a Zinnemann biographer, discussing the film for half an hour, and is very interesting. But that’s pretty much all we get. Otherwise there are a few snippets of behind the scenes footage and a very brief clip of an interview with the director from the time (in French – Zinnemann speaks rather halting French, but how many US – or indeed UK – directors nowadays would be able to be interviewed in French?). There’s also a booklet with a couple of decent essays, and the cover has Arrow’s reliably ugly commissioned artwork. Why can’t they just stick with films’ original posters?

Still, the extras and packaging are by the by – the film is a classic, and looks great in this Blu-ray release. It’s as close to an essential purchase as any I’ve seen recently.

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Comments on this review

  • IzzyS published 22/10/2017
    Great review.
  • euphie published 22/10/2017
    e :o)
  • anonymili published 20/10/2017
    E!
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Product Information : The Day of the Jackal (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Genre: Thriller

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Actor(s): Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Cyril Cusack

Director(s): Fred Zinnemann

Classification: 15 years and over

EAN: 5027035017402

Production Year: 1973

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Listed on Ciao since: 08/09/2017