Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Day of the Jackal

TCM's prime-time offering for February 29 was Fred Zinnemann's 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal. To be honest, I had never seen this movie before, and enjoyed finally being able to watch it. Despite it being about a historical event to which we know the outcome, Zinnemann's direction makes this an excellent and gripping film.

The basic synopsis is that in 1963 France, a group of army officers unhappy with Charles de Gaulle's handling of the situation in Algeria hire an contract killer to assassinate de Gaulle. The assassin, played by Edward Fox is an efficient, ruthless killer. The first half of the movie takes place predominantly outside France, as we see the assassin's detailed preparations -- obtaining multiple false identities, disguises, and a high-powered sniper's rifle he'll be able to smuggle into France.

Meanwhile, French intelligence figures out that something is up, but they have no idea exactly what: the man they seek has to them no known name, face, or fingerprints. It could be any of fifty million people. There's only one man in France who has the investigative ability to find the killer the authorities seek: Inspector Lebel, played by Michel Lonsdale (looking rather like Oskar Homolka). Lebel's dogged pursuit, combined with a massive dragnet and some pure dumb luck, gets him to within a few hours of the assassin on numerous occasions, but our antihero always manages to stay one step ahead of the authorities, as he has informants of his own.

We know what will happen at the end of the movie: the attempt on de Gaulle's life will fail; in real life de Gaulle resigned the French presidency after the student riots of 1968, and died quietly in 1970. And there's not a whole lot of action. With the exception of one scene at the beginning and the assassin's practice session with his sniper's rifle, we don't get explosions. Nor do we get a French Connection-style car chase. Still, there's always dual tensions. How is the assassin going to get out of the latest tight situation he's in, and how is Lebel going to find him and foil the assassination plot? And by playing these tensions off of one another, Zinnemann is able to create an atmosphere of suspense that keeps us glued to our seats right up until the final bullet is fired.

The Day of the Jackal is available on DVD, in case you missed TCM's recent showing. Although it runs just over two hours, twenty minutes, at no point does it feel like a long movie.

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