The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Directed by Fred Zinnemann

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The Day of the Jackal is a thriller following the man paid to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle and the police chief tasked with hunting the assassin down.  This is one of those movies that tracks the story from two points of view, one on each side of the law.  Other stories told this way include Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and Michael Mann’s Heat as well as any number of movies I can’t remember off the top of my head.  This type of framing for the story often draws some kind of parallel between good guy and bad guy, blurring the lines between them.  The idea, as in Blade Runner, is generally that you have to think like a criminal to track one down, and thus the two most important characters in the movie, despite working in opposition to each other, are quite similar.  In many cases they have some other kind of relationship with each other, and you’ll get that scene somewhere in the middle of the story in which they sit down opposite each other at a cafe and square off, even though the climax won’t come for another 30-50 minutes.

There is none of that familiarity or even personality in The Day of the Jackal.  We don’t even know the name of the “Jackal,” the man paid $500,000 to assassinate the French President.  All we know about him is what we’re told by the three French men who hire him for the job.  They’re a part of the OAS, an underground militant organization, and they’re looking for someone outside of the country to do what they recently failed to do, kill de Gaulle.

They find the Jackal because he’s an expert British assassin with no record in France.  His usefulness is his anonymity, and the important theme of the movie would seem to be the anonymity of all those involved.

The Jackal goes to great lengths and great detail to try and kill de Gaulle, but he does so purely for the money.  There is no deep-seated mission or ideology at stake.  The man who will lead the investigation to find him is a deputy, Claude Lebel.  Lebel, like the Jackal, is picked due to an impressive past record and not for anything else.  They are each men hired to do one job, and they stretch themselves thin trying to succeed.

The big idea behind this story is the determination of these two characters, only out of duty.  They are told what to do, and they do it, next to no questions asked.  This isn’t a story about politics or personal ideologies or even really terrorism.  The Jackal doesn’t seem to represent anything beyond himself.  Despite being a terrorist, he is almost completely disconnected from the organization that hires him.  After they make contact and the plan is set in motion, the Jackal works almost entirely alone.  Anyone he comes too close to ends up dead and by his own hand.

We aren’t given much information about why the OAS wants de Gaulle dead.  We’re told it’s because de Gaulle granted Algiers their independence, but this information is told to us quickly at the start of the movie.  From then on it’s never addressed again.  So The Day of the Jackal isn’t about why this is happening, just that it is.

It’s a film concerned with detail.  We become immersed in the process behind the Jackal’s assassination attempt, which involves documents, wardrobes, identity alterations, country-jumping, a brief affair and the use of a peculiar little rifle.  We watch him practice and organize every last detail of what will go into that one moment where he’ll try to shoot de Gaulle, and we follow it without always knowing where we’re headed.

The Jackal is very primal.  At a certain point he’s alerted that the authorities are onto him, and from then on his main goal seems to be survival.  To protect himself he’ll kill a few civilians, and he comes across as a feral creature.  We know so little about him that every decision becomes extremely momentous, as if shedding more and more light into what’s left of his soul.  When we realize that he’s still going through with the assassination attempt, even when the plan has fallen apart, it only raises more questions about what kind of man he is.  Maybe he does have some kind of personal code, perhaps just one of sticking to his word.

At a certain point, about halfway through the film, Lebel catches onto the Jackal and is always one step behind.  We’re ahead of Lebel, of course, because we’ve been watching the Jackal operate, but we’re on the same page as Lebel in the sense that we don’t understand the Jackal at all.

The movie ends with a thrilling sequence as the Jackal masquerades as an elderly, one-legged veteran, in order to sneak into an apartment with a view of the President.  His process, now mostly a series of pay offs from what’s been set up before, is exciting to watch, like staring at an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine.

Lebel catches up to him and shoots him down before he can harm the President (though he does get one shot off).  The final shot of the film shows the coffin holding the Jackal as it’s lowered into an unmarked grave.  Lebel looks on and then walks away as someone comments on how they still don’t know who the Jackal was.

So at the end of the film I guess the significance was that the Jackal can’t be understood.  Even though the assassination was prevented, it’s because someone like the Jackal, someone who would go to such great lengths to commit terror, remains as unknowable as before that the problem isn’t solved.  It’s as if the Jackal never existed, even though he was stopped.  He’s still out there in a different form, and the threat will always loom large.

We get to watch the Jackal and Lebel in great detail, but we learn very little about them.  As mysterious as the Jackal is, so too is Lebel.  He’s dedicated to his job, asking nothing more about the case when it is given to him.  He follows orders and works many sleepless nights until the problem is solved.  He gets no recognition, he’s not celebrated, he just goes home to bed, similar to the end of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

In both cases here there is no sense of celebration or honor in what the Jackal and Lebel do.  They only happen to be on opposite sides of the law because of the men who are in charge of them.  One works for money, and the other works for his supervisor.  Sure, Lebel might have more of a sense of honor than the Jackal because he knows on some level that what he’s doing is right and just, but we never see him express any emotion while he’s at work.  Again, this is a story about process and little more.  Both men spend go through the film with lips pursed and eyes narrowed.  They’re always a little feral and never able to relax.

In the end it’s as if nothing happened.  The Jackal, though dead, is just as anonymous as he was previously, as if he never existed.  Lebel returns to his ordinary job unable to comment on what he’s done but likely just as unwilling to speak about it, even to his wife who shows up in the film only to act as a messenger between him and the government who enlists him.

We see both men only in the confines of their work.  Though Lebel has that wife and an apparent hobby involving pigeons, we know very little about it.  They’re humans, with interests surely, but we watch them in one very specific aspect of their lives.  They become almost carnal, like two predators stalking their prey.  Neither man sees the other ‘predator’ as just that.  They are something to be crossed off a list, and they might as well not exist as anything remotely human to the other.  They are an objective and nothing more.

So both characters, in some ways, dehumanize the other.  Unlike those other cops and robbers films I mentioned at the top, there is no connection between the two.  They don’t know each other before the movie starts, and they are no closer to understanding each other once the movie ends.

Up Next: Game Night (2018), The American Friend (1977), The Longest Day (1962)

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