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Rediscovering a Universal classic: 'The Day of the Jackal'

Edward Fox, the actor who portrayed 'the Jackal' in Fred Zinnemann's thriller.
Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images

When legendary film director Fred Zinnemann made The Day of the Jackal, he claims he perceived it as pure entertainment. Little did he suspect that his film, based on the eponymous best seller by Frederick Forsyth, would become a classic. While the film did not perform as well as expected in its initial release, it is still regarded by critics and audiences alike as a brilliantly crafted thriller and plays repeatedly on television across the world.

The Anglo-French co-production, which boasts an international cast, is about a contract killer (played by Edward Fox) who aims to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. It is to director Zinnemann’s credit to have succeeded in creating suspense with a story for which everyone knew the outcome (de Gaulle was never assassinated in spite of different attempts against his life, and died of natural causes in 1970). The film’s narrative concentrates on the minutia involved in preparing the assassination and does it so well that it keeps the audience captivated throughout.

The Day of the Jackal is exceptional at different levels:
-the cross-cutting between the contract killer’s progresses in the preparation, including the uniquely tailored rifle he orders from a gunsmith in Italy and which can break down to be placed in a crutch, and the efforts of the French and British investigators to unmask the Jackal and find his whereabouts.
-The scarcity of dialogues and lack of emotions involved with the lead character who is as cold-blooded as what he is contracted for. He is an immoral man and doesn't let emotions get in the way. He is a pure professional paid to do a job and will stop at nothing to carry it out.
-The efficient use of European locations, including France, Austria, Italy and England which, undoubtedly, must have presented the filmmakers with quite a few headaches.
-The editing which keeps the 143-minute thriller simmering through at a perfect pace (Ralph Kemplen, the editor, was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film).

The casting of suave Edward Fox, who appears as a composed, classy and highly educated man, making him the least likely suspect to carry out such an immoral act, is perfect. While the people at Universal, the company which financed and distributed the film worldwide, wanted to impose a big name for the lead (Robert Redford and even Nicholson were contemplated), Fred Zinnemann insisted on someone more anonymous whose face was not instantly recognizable. Reportedly, Roger Moore and Michael Caine lobbied for the role but the director stuck to its original idea, refusing that the Jackal be portrayed by a star. After watching Fox in the Go-Between (MGM, 1970), he offered him the part. Based on his own account, the actor had a hard time getting into the role at first, not knowing exactly how to play it. The cool approach kept throughout was suggested by Zinnemann who is renowned for being very specific with actors.

The John Woolf production was released in the Summer of 1973 and turned into an instant classic for the studio which released the same year such box-office hits as The Sting, American Graffiti and High Plains Drifter.

In the late 1990s, Fred Zinnemann had a feud with Universal over a so-called ‘remake’ starring Bruce Willis that bore no resemblance to the original but which was to keep the exact same title. The Oscar-winning director insisted for a title change. "Let them call it 'Night of the Shark' or something," he said.

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