Pissed-off Toff

The Day of the Jackal – a film review

in Reviews

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Day of the Jackal, Pissed-off Toff reviews the film that ensued.

When Frederick Forsyth wrote The Day of the Jackal back in 1970, he did so not because he was in possession of a message that he felt impelled to share with the world, but because he was unemployed, flat broke, and had an idea that he hoped might enable him to pay off a few debts. ‘I dashed off 350 pages on a battered portable typewriter at a kitchen table in 35 days,’ he recently wrote, referring to a feat that has become the stuff of publishing lore, ‘and then hawked it from rejection to no-no.’ 

Granted that the typescript was 140,000 words long, that represents an almost unbelievable 4,000 words a day. Many a writer would be glad to produce a quarter of that. Nor, perhaps, did Forsyth believe his luck when, having been rejected by four publishers, the book took off in spectacular manner; because when it came to selling the film rights, he took no chances. Offered the choice between a one-off payment of £20,000 with no royalties, or £17,500 with a small share of any profits, he chose the former … thus waving goodbye to a sizeable fortune. 

He was not to know, after all, that in the hands of the director Frank Zimmermann, his first novel was to be turned into a work of cinematic genius; a film well over two hours long which even today, almost fifty years after it was produced, grips the viewer from start to finish and brings the vanished world of 1960s Europe back to life in vivid detail.

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The plot is so simple and clearly presented that – as mentioned in a previous piece on this site – even my father could follow it. Briefly: wishing to assassinate General de Gaulle for having granted independence to Algeria, the Organistion de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) hire a hitman codenamed ‘Jackal’ to do the job. The French authorities get wind of this, and from then on it’s a race against time to identify and find the hitman. 

Which brings us straight to perhaps the most unusual aspect of Zimmermann’s thriller: namely, that with the story based firmly in the real world, we know the outcome from the start; we know that the Jackal will fail to kill the President of France; so where’s the suspense? That is why the book was turned down repeatedly. What the unlucky publishers failed to appreciate is that the interest lies not in whether the Jackal will succeed (we know he won’t), but in how, exactly, he will fail, and in the mechanics of a manhunt which has us on the edge of our seats throughout.

Structurally, the plot consists of two parallel stories, constantly intercut, with the Jackal preparing to kill de Gaulle and the police attempting to catch him. Unlike in so many more recent films, however, there are no confusing rewinds and fast-forwards. Here, the narrative unfolds in straightforward chronological manner, leaving us free to concentrate on the essentials: the cunning of the Jackal and the determination of the police; one lone operator’s bid to outwit the combined security services of France and England; and how he so very nearly succeeds.

* * * * *

The film opens in the courtyard of the Elysée Palace, from where de Gaulle emerges before narrowly escaping an assassination attempt by the OAS as he and his escort speed towards an airport on the outskirts of Paris. This actually happened, on 22 August 1962; and if the opening scene was shot at the Hôtel de Soubise rather than at the presidential residence, it hardly matters. With the historical reality of the event, with the iconic black Citroën cars lined up in the courtyard, with the pomp of the French state in full evidence, and with a taut cinematographic style shorn of any soundtrack, we have, from the outset, the most compelling authenticity.

Realising that they are riddled with informers and that for a successful attempt on the life of the President they need an outsider, the OAS, now in hiding in Austria, call on a British professional killer (Edward Fox) whose identity is not revealed. “It’s possible,” he says with well-bred insouciance, “but the trouble is getting away with it.” When the OAS express surprise at his fee of half a million dollars, he tells them that it’s cheap at the price, and suggests that if they are short of cash, they might like to rob a few banks. How uncomplicated life was in those days, I reflect, not for the last time in this film. Oh, and his codename for the job will be ‘Jackal’.

* * * * *

With an almost unlimited budget, The Day of the Jackal was shot in locations in France, Austria, England and Italy … and as the Jackal scans the French newspapers in the British Library, steals a passport from a Danish tourist arriving at Heathrow, and travels to Genova to commission a special gun and forged documents, we are taken straight back to the Europe of the 1960s … perhaps not so very difficult for the producers to recreate, since the film was shot just one decade later; but fascinating for us today. 

Thus a scene in a slummy backstreet in Genova reeks of this bygone era; with only a few cars in them, the streets of Paris induce aching nostalgia; and throughout the film the physical reality of the period is summoned up through everyday objects which will be familiar to viewers of a certain age: the telephones, the office furniture, the card-index filing systems. I am intrigued to note, too, that in scenes in France and Italy the Jackal carries a zip-up suitcase in tan pigskin leather identical to one made around 1960 which I inherited a few years ago. Here it is:

The Jackal’s pigskin suitcase

The same applies to the customs of the era. Thus almost everyone smokes non-stop; when, in London, a chief inspector wants to get in touch with a colleague after office hours, he telephones the latter’s regular pub; and when the Jackal jumps onto the Genova-Paris train as it pulls out of the station, we reflect that you can’t do that nowadays.

* * * * *

Alarmed by the spate of bank robberies, the French authorities are convinced that something is afoot, and kidnap the OAS’s faithful clerk Viktor Volensky from his hideout in Rome. “Never mind the Italian government,” says a French minister when diplomatic concerns are raised. Tortured by electrocution, Volensky reveals nothing before his death other than the word ‘chacal’, indistinctly mumbled.

By mid-August of 1963, the French security service is certain that the life of the President is in danger. In one of the most convincing sequences of a film which is never less than convincing, we follow a despatch rider through the streets of Paris as he makes his way from the Interior Ministry to the Elysée and hands an urgent note to the maître d’hôtel. Here, with lackeys galore in gilded salons, we see the French state apparatus in all its pomp … and the efficiency of the pre-Internet world.

Cut to the parallel storyline, in which the Jackal returns to Genova, kills the forger who ill-advisedly attempts to blackmail him, and dumps the dead man’s body in a large chest in his workshop. Surely it will be discovered, we think. And why doesn’t the Jackal look for the material which the man wished to sell to him? The reason, it transpires, is that he intends to compete his mission in the very near future, rendering such considerations irrelevant.

Still in Genova, the gunsmith – masterfully portrayed by a slightly donnish Cyril Cusak with a widower’s black band on the arm of his jacket – has the good sense not to mess with his dangerous client when he collects the finished gun. The Jackal then goes to a streetmarket and buys a watermelon from a peasant woman dressed in black for 600 lire, before testing his new weapon in the countryside … the large fruit standing in for the head of de Gaulle. Again, both episodes are perfectly crafted and entirely convincing.

When, back at the Interior Ministry in Paris, the best detective in the force is called in, we meet Deputy Police Commissioner Claude Lebel, acted by the dependable Michael Lonsdale, recently deceased. Wearing a grey tweed jacket and a black tie on a grey shirt, he is the epitome of no-frills professionalism; in contrast to the worldly ministers seated round the table in their well-cut dark grey suits with white shirt and blue tie – that most elegant male uniform of the 1960s. “Just go and find this Jackal, will you?” says the Interior Minister, like some grand seigneur of the ancien régime.

Given unlimited powers and resources, Lebel sets up his own operations room … where I recognise the same large map of Paris which, many years ago, I placed on the wall above my desk in a bedsit somewhere in the 19th arrondissement. “I want a good telephonist, the best they’ve got,” insists Lebel, keeping himself awake with non-stop coffee and cigarettes. And we now meet his assistant, played by the young Derek Jacobi in one of his earlier roles. I can’t help reflecting how camp he is; but as a stressed-out chain-smoking factotum working round the clock, he’s as well-cast as all the other characters in the film.

* * * * *

With the life of General de Gaulle at risk, the search for the Jackal now goes international. “Get me the Foreign Office, would you, love?” says a British copper to a telephonist in Scotland Yard: a request worded in terms that one would not get away with nowadays. While in a scene straight from the 1960s, an impeccably dressed Whitehall mandarin wearing an OE tie suggests to a colleague, as they chat discreetly on a bench in St James’s Park, that he might have discovered the identity of the man they are after.

‘Chacal’ was the name that Volensky revealed before he died under interrogation. This is the French for ‘jackal’; and the ‘cha’ and ‘cal’ of the word might point to a British citizen named Charles Calthrop, a crack shot who might or might not have been involved in the assassination of a South American dictator. When the British police search the central London flat of this same Calthrop, now absent, they think that they’ve found their man.

Back in Italy, the Jackal has secreted his weapon in the undercarriage of his white Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider with its Genova licence plate, and drives to the French border west of Ventimiglia. Here, the luggage of every fair-haired male aged around thirty is being searched. Nevertheless, when he gets through the checkpoint and arrives at a signpost in France marked ‘Paris’ to the left and ‘Italie’ to the right, he turns left … and the car roars up the hill as it carries him towards his destiny.

When, later that day, he walks into the Hôtel Negresco in Nice, we hear the only bit of soundtrack in the entire film: a waltz. Why, I wonder, does Zimmermann depart just this once from almost documentary realism? In any case, ringing his contact in Paris from a telephone booth in the lobby of this monument to the golden age of tourism, the Jackal receives confirmation that his cover has been blown. Ordered by the British Prime Minister – we presume Harold Macmillan – to leave no stone unturned in their efforts to identify the man who intends to kill General de Gaulle, the police in London have established that he is travelling with a false passport under the name of Paul Duggan.

Not that that prevents the Jackal from staying the night at the Hôtel de la Bastide in the hills beyond Grasse, where he seduces the aristocratic Mme de Montpellier … and leaves early the next morning, well before the local police appear to collect the official card bearing his assumed name … this forming another memorable sequence in which we see the French state at work in the days before computers.

Only just ahead of the police, the Jackal is involved in a car crash which obliges him to abandon his Alfa Romeo and make his way to the nearby residence of his recent lover of one night, whose address he gleaned from the hotel register. With its grand piano in the drawing room, with a portrait of Mme de Montpellier prominently visible, and with a couple of faithful old retainers in the background, this château is spot on. Indeed, so determined was Zimmermann to recreate an entirely convincing reality, that he must have commissioned this portrait of his actress, painted in the style of Giovanni Boldini.

Belle Époque portrait by Giovanni Boldini

Having spent another night with her unexpected guest, Mme de Montpellier makes the mistake of telling him that the police came here asking after him. Strangling her, he leaves at dawn, now disguised as the Danish teacher whose passport he stole at Heathrow. The Jackal has thus claimed his second victim and has fallen back onto his second false identity.

What do we really know of him, though? He has boyish charm and good looks. He speaks with the cut-glass accent of a public-school-educated Englishman. Always dapper, he gets away with hip-hugging high-waisted fawn trousers typical of the period, and sports a slightly caddish cravat (something of a signature item, it would seem, for the Old Harrovian Edward Fox). Then – as we see when he strips off to spray his white Alfa Romeo blue – he is in fine shape physically; just as he combines resourcefulness, ruthlessness and considerable intelligence with nerves of steel. We also think that his real name might be Charles Calthrop. Apart from that we know only that he is a trained killer. Nevertheless, by this stage we are probably willing him to succeed … even though we know he won’t.

* * * * *

Arriving by train at the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, he once more evades the police, this time by a matter of seconds, and goes to a Turkish bath, where he picks up a gay man who invites him to stay. No more hotels for the Jackal: that would be too risky. Nor, when it becomes necessary, does he hesitate to kill his unsuspecting host.

His plan is to assassinate de Gaulle at the Liberation Day ceremonies on 25thAugust 1963. With every policeman in Paris now searching for him, the tension mounts still further. And when the day arrives, we see the full gloire of the French state on display. As the crowds look on, legions of white-gloved policemen advance on shiny motorbikes, battalions of tanks mass near the Étoile, and a glorious Napoleonic cavalcade bears witness to the military might of France. This, clearly, is a real ceremony. No film-maker could have staged it. 

But now, in the crowds lining the streets during this same ceremony, we see Lebel in a frantic last-minute search for the Jackal, and two plain-clothes policemen shaking down an innocent bystander. How is this possible? Simple: demonstrating a resourcefulness worthy of the Jackal himself, Zimmermann’s French producer persuaded the authorities to let him film inside police lines in a real 14th July parade down the Champs-Élysées … with the unintended result that a number of onlookers stepped in and tried to help actors portraying police officers to arrest ‘suspects’ in the crowd.

Now assuming his third identity as an invalid war veteran, the Jackal shows his forged carte d’invalidité to a policeman standing by the cordoned-off area in which de Gaulle is due to present medals to heroes of the Resistance. In a block where he had previously taken an impression of the key to a top-floor flat, and with marksmen positioned on the roofs of all the surrounding buildings, he kills the elderly concierge with a karate chop on her neck and sets himself up to await the President’s appearance. For this part of the movie, not only did Zimmermann’s man persuade the police to clear a busy square to allow the filming to take place, but in the following sequence the actor portraying de Gaulle is the spitting image of him; resulting once again in an almost bewildering degree of realism.

When, finally, the Jackal is buried in an unmarked grave in Paris, it emerges that he was not Charles Calthrop after all, leading us to speculate that even his codename was a decoy devised to flummox the police. “But if the Jackal wasn’t Calthrop, then who the hell was he?” asks a puzzled British inspector as the film ends. No answer is given.

* * * * *

Tightly constructed, beautifully made, and never less than compellingly realistic, The Day of the Jackal is far more sophisticated than many of the James Bond films, in which one often struggles to suspend disbelief and which at times border on pastiche. Here, however, there are no special effects and no car chases; there is no pulsating soundtrack and no gratuitous violence. Indeed, such violence as occurs is more suggested than shown. And nothing lies outside the realm of possibility: it is all entirely plausible.

Why, though, did the film leave such an impression this time round? 

The reason, perhaps, is that it so forcefully revives the world I knew as a child but that is now gone for ever. With our lives smothered by the blanket of the Internet, and with everyone in thrall to their computers and smartphones, the pre-digital age looks increasingly free and alluring; and hemmed in for over a year by restrictions designed to make travel all but impossible, we contemplate in disbelief the ease with which the Jackal moves around the Europe of half a century ago.

Indeed, so rapid is our march towards madness, that as Forsyth’s assassin accelerates uphill towards Paris in his 8-valve 1,290-cc Alfa Romeo with its throaty roar, one cannot help reflect that if the armies of climate-change zealots of today prevail (as looks all too likely), even the internal combustion engine will soon be banned.

Such is the insanity of the puritanical new world we are making for ourselves: a joyless, repressive place which I would leave in a flash if only I could, and in which one of the few sources of blessed forgetfulness is films like this one. 

Watch it, and weep …

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