“THE DAY OF THE JACKAL”— Simply Put: A Movie About a Terrorist


Simply Put: A Movie About a Terrorist

Amos Lassen

In 1971, Frederick Forsyth’s first novel, “The Day of the Jackal” was the bestselling book. It seemed that everyone was reading it and it was taut, totally plausible and almost documentarian in its realism and attention to detail. Two years later, director Fred Zinnemann turned a gripping novel into an unforgettable nail-biting cinematic experience.

Set in August 1962, the latest attempt on the life of French President Charles de Gaulle by the far right paramilitary organization, the OAS, ended in chaos, with its architect-in-chief dead at the hands of a firing squad. Demoralized and on the verge of bankruptcy, the OAS leaders meet in secret to plan their next move. They decide on a last desperate attempt to eliminate de Gaulle and decide to use the services of a hired assassin from outside the fold. They hire the Jackal (Edward Fox), a man who is charismatic, calculating and cold as ice. As the Jackal closes in on his target, a race against the clock to identify and put a stop to a killer whose identity, whereabouts and modus operandi are completely unknown.

The film is tense, exciting and convincing in every detail. Edward Fox  as Jackal performs chillingly in what may still be his best performance. The movie belongs to him and he owns it but he is supported by strong work from an excellent Franco-British cast including Michel Lonsdale, Alan Badel, Eric Porter, Cyril Cusack, Delphine Seyrig, Donald Sinden, Tony Britton and Timothy West. Director Zinnemann achieves an extremely high level of tension and suspense despite the audience’s pre-knowledge of the plot’s outcome. The film is attractively shot on a huge number of striking European locations by cinematographer Jean Tournier. The clever, intelligent screenplay is by Kenneth Ross and there is a notable score by Georges Delerue to add to the mood and tension.

It’s a riveting cat-and-mouse game between the mysterious lone wolf hired assassin known only by his code name of the Jackal and the French Inspector Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), the master policeman in charge of the investigation. Zinnemann’s technique emphasizes the details of how the cold-blooded contract killer will complete the job and eschews the politics, keeping the action restrained and building in tension to the concluding assassination attempt.  The new leader of the OAS, Colonel Rolland flees to Rome where he and his three top aides secretly hires the Jackal to assassinate DeGaulle. They pay him $250,000 down and another $250,000 on completion of the job, and allow him to execute his own plan. 

The French police are watching Rolland carefully and through their many informers learn that another attempt on DeGaulle will be tried. Failing to come up with more information they kidnap Wolenski, one of the extremists living with Rolland, and torture him until he gives up the code name of the hired killer. With little else to go on the cabinet ministers call upon the best cop in France to get the assassin, Lebel, who is sworn to secrecy about his mission and chooses to work only with Detective Caron (Derek Jacobi). Through a mixture of skill, luck and hard work they begin to close in on the Jackal, as they trail him between London, Paris, Vienna, and Rome. The heart of the film consists of the Jackal’s elaborate preparations for the assassination and Lebel’s attempts to nab him. Jackal has fatal flings with the wealthy married woman Colette (Delphine Seyrig) and the homosexual Bernard (Anton Rodgers) as Lebel works the phones contacting his counterparts in the British police and meets with the bureaucratic cabinet ministers to report his findings, who treat him more as a servant than one of them. 

The film was well-acted by this mostly British cast of established character actors and the narrative is presented in such a precise way despite offering no psychological analysis or humor. There was never any suspense as to the outcome, because history already told us De Gaulle was not assassinated. But, nevertheless, Zinnemann’s direction keeps the viewer involved with the story line, even though everything was so obvious. Zinnemann gave us an engrossing film about an unsympathetic ruthless terrorist, someone who can be only admired for his efficiency. Now with the state of terrorism in the world today, this film from another generation is still relevant. 


High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation

Original uncompressed 1.0 mono audio

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing

New interview with Neil Sinyard, author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience

Two rare archival clips from the film set, including an interview with Fred Zinnemann

Theatrical trailer

Original screenplay by Kenneth Ross (BD-ROM content)

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe and film historian Sheldon Hall

Leave a Reply