Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 12, 2008)
While I donít listen to Tony Kornheiserís radio show for his movie reviews, I enjoy his observations, and they occasionally pique my interest. When I heard Kornheiser refer to 1973ís The Day of the Jackal as a ďperfect movieĒ, that was enough for me. Time to break out the Blockbuster card and give it a rental!
Adapted from the novel by Frederick Forsyth, the flick starts with a prologue that refers to French President Charles De Gaulleís handling of Algeria in 1962. When he gives that nation their independence, a group of French extremists called the OAS plan to assassinate him. Their initial attempts fail miserably and leave the OAS in tatters.
In a desperate move, OAS leaders decide to hire a foreign contract killer to slay De Gaulle for them. They settle on a mysterious Brit known to us only as ďThe JackalĒ (Edward Fox). We follow his attempts to assassinate De Gaulle as well as the work by the French authorities to keep their leader alive and foil the plot.
So was Kornheiser right? No, I wouldnít agree that Jackal is a perfect movie, or even necessarily a great one. However, I do think itís a very good film, and one that borders on excellence. It takes a fairly simple story and keeps us engrossed for almost two and a half hours.
Going into Jackal, two plot points are obvious from the very start. For one, the Jackal wonít succeed. Since no one ever assassinated De Gaulle, the movie wonít change history. However, we know that the Jackal will almost achieve his goal. Heíll go through plenty of close calls but nothing that will prevent him from the near resolution of his assignment.
Does the prior paragraph give away the ending of Jackal? Yes, but I regard those ďrevelationsĒ as akin to a declaration that the Titanic sinks or Superman saves Lois Lane. The pleasure one takes from Jackal comes from the path it follows to get to its conclusion. We never doubt how the film will resolve, but we delight in the route it takes to get there.
And Jackal follows an eminently delicious road to its conclusion. Director Fred Zinnemann doesnít waste a shot in this exceedingly tight, concise flick. I donít know of many other flicks that boast such precise plotting. You wonít find an extraneous scene here, as even when a sequence feels like a throwaway, its connection to the main story soon becomes clear.
Jackal really is all about the plot. Exposition never arises, which I regard as a good thing. Of course, if we learned anything about the Jackal himself, that would mar the fun. I suppose some flicks might like to take a pop psychology approach to the role and show us what made him a cold-blooded assassin, but I think that approach would be out of place here. The Jackalís anonymity gives him a cool sheen that would evaporate with any character background.
The same goes for the other roles. We donít learn much about the cops and others involved, and we donít need any of that information. Jackal doesnít bother with their home lives or their relationships unless they connect to the story. This makes it a focused tale without any flab whatsoever.
I must admit Iím glad I never saw Jackal theatrically, as itíd be impossible to take a bathroom break. Thereís no point in the film where you can spot an extraneous character bit and take a pee. Youíd just have to hold it for all two and a half hours or risk missing a crucial plot element.
This also means the flick never patronizes the viewer. It includes many small beats but it doesnít spell them out for the audience. If you pick up on them, thatís great, but if you donít, tough luck. The film wonít slow down its relentless pace to let you catch up; it doesnít mollycoddle the inattentive.
I love that fact, since it really does reward the viewer with many clever bits. I donít think that this means you have to take notes while you watch Jackal; Zinnemann tells things in such a crisp, logical way that it becomes easy to remember the elements. It does mean that you need to grasp callbacks and quick references without warning, though, and Ė gasp! Ė youíll actually have to think while you watch.
In Jackal, Zinnemann loves to set up a premise and then ignore it for an extended period before it finally returns. The tightness with which it develops all the elements really delights. The flick doesnít use convenient loopholes to develop the story; it ensures that when a twist occurs, we had preparation for it.
Jackal also benefits from an understated storytelling style. Despite the literal life and death drama on display, Zinnemann doesnít resort to histrionics or cheap methods to milk the tension. He lets the story do the work and allows things to unfold in an involving way.
Some of the most dynamic editing Iíve ever seen helps. Actually, ďdynamicĒ doesnít sound right, as that implies an aggressive cutting style. Instead, Jackal features smooth transitions that lead us naturally from one sequence, place and/or character to another. Thatís part of that ďno bathroom breakĒ factor; the flick zips from bit to bit in such a seamless manner that we never find any flab or slow spots.
Like I said, I donít regard The Day of the Jackal as a perfect movie, but I canít find many flaws on display. It takes a potentially complicated story and breaks it down to its basics. The rendering allows us to remain engrossed from start to finish.