Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal is in many ways a natural work for the screen. Its plot is exclusively procedural in nature, depicting an attempt by a mysterious assassin known only as The Jackal to kill the president of France Charles de Gaulle concurrently with the law’s to prevent him from doing so, without any artificial melodramatics or sentiment mixed in. Forsyth provides a journalistic attention to the mechanical details of his fictional assassination attempt that connect to each other like links in a chain of steadily building suspense, and the novel is quite literally all plot (in more than one sense of the word), a perfect opportunity for any filmmaker. As such it’s been brought to the screen on two separate occasions: once in 1973 by director Fred Zinnemann and again in 1997 by Michael Caton-Jones, and both films combined make a fascinating study in the different ways a basic narrative concept can be brought to the screen.
The 1973 screen version of The Day of the Jackal more or less follows the plot of the book with only minor changes and compressions of the action. Crucially, the tone of the novel is captured, and the movie feels like a quiet and subtle quasi-documentary as the Jackal does his methodical work. He’s played by Edward Fox, who gives him just the right amount of sociopathic charm without making the character feel like a typical psycho killer villain. This film understands that whatever his psychological profile may be, the Jackal is not a mad killer who takes lives because he enjoys it or even to fulfill some sort of circuitous agenda, but a man doing a job that happens to involve ending lives -- not just that of his target but any obstacle who shows even the potential to stop him before his mission is completed.
When I read the novel I kept picturing the Jackal as Daniel Craig, I guess because there was something about his stoic, methodical approach combined with his appreciation for life’s finer luxuries that reminded me of Craig’s serious 007. Fox is more of a cipher in the role, inscrutable but with a perversely friendly, honest face, that makes it believable that he’d be able to worm in and out of so many tight situations over the course of the story. His counterpart is Claude Lebel, the detective who is given the responsibility of stopping the Jackal from taking out de Gaulle, played wonderfully by Michael Lonsdale with a humble, unfussy professionalism: his hero detective isn’t really a hero at all, just a man doing his job, just as the Jackal is.
That’s the main dramatic thrust of both Forsyth’s novel and Zinneman’s film, the idea that these two guys are professionals doing their best work on behalf of people who don’t appreciate it. It may seem like a macho cliché but if so it’s one of the best ever examples of that cliché, and it’s easy to see the influence the book and film had on a filmmaker like Michael Mann, whose films Manhunter and Heat both feature similar dynamics between their cops and criminals (in fact, Mann would have been a perfect choice to direct a Day of the Jackal film in the 90s, but that’s a topic for another time).
Zinneman shoots The Day of the Jackal with the documentary realism that had become fashionable in action films of that time (we’re only two years after William Friedkin’s The French Connection at this point), and a patient observation of process that reminds me of films like Le Samourai, where the suspense comes not necessarily from violence or physical danger but from the simple act of watching a task being accomplished, a car being outfitted to conceal a sniper rifle, or a gun being purchased to exacting specifications. But, when the danger does arise, the film seems to come alive, and Zinneman stages the Jackal’s multiple murders with Hitchcockian precision if not Hitchcockian flair. It’s chilling to watch this man use and discard human beings with such unfeeling professionalism, and as in Forsyth’s novel these murders serve as dramatic, suspenseful punctuation marks to the story.
Forsyth reportedly had a hard time finding a publisher for his debut novel because it was thought at the time that his fact-based approach wouldn’t generate sufficient suspense in the reading public that at that time would have known that President de Gaulle had never been assassinated. This was obviously flawed thinking in retrospect as the book eventually became a best-seller and a classic thriller, but it also shows how little conventional thinkers understand the principles of suspense, that it doesn’t come exclusively from not knowing the outcome but from the process of reaching that outcome -- an idea that both the novel and film succeed in
Unfortunately, by the time 1997’s The Jackal came around, the lessons taught by The Day of the Jackal had apparently been forgotten. What was once a scarily plausible story about events that very well could have really happened has been turned into another over-the-top spy story, and not a particularly good one at that. For one thing, the newer film adaptation opts to modernize the basic plotline by moving it from the early 1960s to the modern era, and of course does away with the concept of the Jackal trying to kill a real-life political figure in the process. That’s just the first of many decisions that chip away at the power of Forsyth’s original novel in attempting to update it for a late 90s audience, but far from the most egregious: in this version, the Jackal (played with unproductive blankness by Bruce Willis) and his law enforcement nemesis (an imprisoned former IRA operative played by Richard Gere) have a personal history together, completely destroying the thematic substance of two men sharing a weird kinship in their professional opposition. Instead, this is basic Good Guy vs Bad Guy, a point that gets driven home even further in the final minutes of the film when Gere’s character describes the Jackal as “evil,” a line that would have no place in either of the earlier versions of this story.
Forsyth successfully had his name removed from The Jackal as well as having its title shortened so as not to link it further with the earlier screen version, and even though I’m a fan of slick, dopey action thrillers it’s hard not to agree with his decision watching The Jackal, which at times feels like a fake movie you’d see in a Hollywood satire like The Player or Full Frontal somehow expanded to feature length.
The Jackal may not work as a movie but it is interesting to see how a narrative can be diluted and compromised by the accumulation of so many little differences that end up totally obscuring what made it special in the first place. Still, my goal is always appreciation rather than criticism, and there are a few good things about it. First and foremost, Richard Gere, who I’m not the biggest fan of generally but who puts in a genuine movie star turn here, his Declan Mulqueen could have made a good franchise character on his own had the film been more successful, and he even does a good job with the notoriously tricky Irish accent. I also enjoyed the opening title sequence, which seems like an attempt to capture the mood of Se7en as well as a quick primer on Soviet history, an interesting combination.
It’s been almost 25 years since The Jackal was released, which means we’re more than due for another adaptation of Forsyth’s novel, a perennially popular favorite and part of the 20th century thriller canon. In today’s streaming climate it’s easy to imagine a three-part miniseries that follows the book even more closely than Zinneman’s effort, although it’s an open question whether that would result in a better film. As The Jackal himself proved, there’s no way to know how a job is going to turn out until it’s done.