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The Day of the Jackal

Universal Home Video

Starring Edward Fox and Michel Lonsdale

Screenplay by Kenneth Ross
Adapted from the novel by Frederick Forsythe

Directed by Fred Zinneman

[box cover]

The Jackal: Collector's Edition

Universal Home Video

Starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere,
Sidney Poitier, and Diane Venora

Screenplay by Chuck Pfarrar
Adapted from a screenplay by Kenneth Ross

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

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Frederick Forsythe, master storyteller and suspense-novelist, retired in 1997, and that was a damn shame. Since 1971, Forsythe has fabricated some of the best intrigue and espionage novels in the world, and many of his books have become films, among them The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, and The Fourth Protocol. Perhaps best-known of his novels is his first, The Day of the Jackal, a work that was so overwhelming in its craft and detail that he was immediately compared to John Le Carre, the preeminent spy novelist of the day.

I first saw Fred Zinneman's The Day of the Jackal many years ago, and was so spellbound that I immediately bought the book. The book made such a further impression upon me that I have now read every one of Forsythe's novels, and most more than once. I was saddened when he announced his retirement, because his skill as a storyteller, his ability to describe locales around the world in the finest particulars, and his use of red herrings and plot twists, have given me hours and hours of pleasure.

So when a studio decides to make another version of The Day of the Jackal, which to them always means "improving" the original work or "updating it for the '90s," there's no way I can let it go without a few comments. This particular tale of an enigmatic assassin who agrees to take one last job — the murder of Charles De Gaulle — is one of the best suspense novels ever written, and Fred Zinneman's 1973 film, with the screenplay by Kenneth Ross, is the most faithful adaptation of any novel that I know.

The 1997 version? Well, I'm sure you know where I'm going with this. But you can read along anyway.

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In the early 1960s, Charles De Gaulle — war hero, leader of the French Resistance, and then-president of France — did something a little controversial. He decided to give up Algeria. While this political decision was entirely in keeping with post-colonial Europe's desire to rid themselves of their costly African colonies, some members of the French military were outraged. After all, hadn't they fought for Algeria, occupied Algeria, paid with their own lives in Algeria? Why would they sacrifice so much if De Gaulle was simply going to give it up?

One faction of the Army that was particularly opposed to the Algerian policy — and opposed to De Gaulle in general — went underground, calling themselves the OAS (Organisation Armee Secret). War heroes and patriots turned bank robbers and seditionists, they took great pains to conceal themselves while waging a low-grade terrorist campaign against the French government. However, they did not regard themselves as criminals. They saw themselves as the true moral voice of France. As is was, the conflict between the OAS and France's Action Service, the military wing of the French Secret Service (SDECE, or Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contre-Espionage), wore on — quietly perhaps, but regularly.

On the evening of 22 August 1962, one Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry led a cell of OAS operatives on a mission to assassinate De Gaulle as his motorcade passed through the streets of Paris. While many shots were fired, De Gaulle just missed being hit, and Bastien-Thiry was captured. Convinced that no member of the French Army would raise his rifle against him, he willingly stood before the firing squad. It was 6:40 a.m. on 11 March 1963, and he was wrong. After the execution of Lt. Col. Bastien-Thiry, pressure from the Action Service increased against the OAS, the organization became riddled with moles, and OAS leaders were forced into hiding outside of France.

Frederick Forsythe's novel The Day of the Jackal, and the 1973 film adaptation, uses this non-fictional account of recent French history as a springboard into a fictional inquiry: What would the leaders of the OAS do, knowing that they could not come out from hiding, nor mount an operation for fear of leaks, if they were still committed to seizing control of France? Forsythe came up with an interesting premise: They would hire an assassin to kill Charles De Gaulle. Not a patriot, not a man who would kill for God and Country, but a professional. They would seek out and hire the man known only as "The Jackal" and give him what he wanted — a lot of money.

1973's The Day of the Jackal stars Edward Fox as the cold-blooded killer, and features an international cast and location shoots throughout England, France, and Italy. As The Jackal, Fox strikes just the right note. At no time during the story does he let his guard down. The Jackal cares only about one thing — the $500,000 he will be paid for completing his mission. Because of this, The Jackal is a cipher, a man of disguise and deception who presents himself as a flesh-and-blood human being to all he meets, but never allows them (or us, the viewers) to know who he is or what makes him tick. He is skilled, he operates without remorse, and because of his ability to compartmentalize his emotions, he's extremely dangerous.

The Day of the Jackal wouldn't be the crack story it is however if our assassin had no adversary. That role is left to Michel Lonsdale as Detective Claude Lebel. When The Jackal's mission is inevitably leaked to the authorities, Det. Lebel is given the job to find the man — a man with no face, no name, and no known whereabouts. We are told by a government minister that Lebel is the best investigator in France, but like The Jackal, his appearance belies his ability. If The Jackal uses his suave English demeanor to hide his ruthless profession, Lebel's own unassuming and somewhat timid personality causes most of the ministers in De Gaulle's cabinet to underestimate him. But, when given his assignment, Lebel is relentless, and he is not afraid to act outside of the cabinet's authority when such tactics are necessary.

The Day of the Jackal, is great fun to watch, and it pulls off a neat trick by making the adversaries equally sympathetic. We admire The Jackal for his professionalism, his foresight, and his ability to use his wits when he is on the run. But we also admire the put-upon Lebel, working for the De Gaulle cabinet with little possibility for reward or recognition, because, unlike the government's pencil-pushing civil servants, it is this humble detective who succeeds in finding the most elusive man in the world, identifying him, and trailing him throughout France.

If there is any antagonist in the film, it is the members of De Gaulle's cabinet, all of whom play a neat game of "cover your ass" when it looks like The Jackal may escape them. But don't plan on disliking the cat or this mouse in this movie. One man will have to win the game, but like any good contest, the real fun is watching it happen.

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I wanted to watch 1997's The Jackalwith an open mind, although I readily admit that such probably is not possible. After all, the working title for the 1997 film was, indeed, The Day of the Jackal, but this was met with vociferous protest from Fred Zinneman, Kenneth Ross, and Mr. Forsythe himself. The producers of The Jackal claimed that they were adapting the Ross' screenplay and not the Forsythe novel (ludicrous, at best), but they eventually relented and chose the now-abbreviated title.

But instead of simply siding with the creators of the original Jackal, I will illustrate a point about Michael Caton-Jones' movie: A key part of Zinneman'sThe Day of the Jackal involves the assassin's need to get some sort of sniper's rifle across the French border. With his intention to travel as a tourist, and all of the checkpoints heavily guarded, he decides that the rifle will need to be small, custom-made, easily disguised, and able to break down into sections. When The Jackal enters France, the weapon is cleverly concealed. It also only holds one round (because he doesn't feel more than one shot will be possible anyway) and barely looks like a weapon. It's smart and sleek, but certainly not the sort of thing that teenage boys might construe as a transposed Freudian phallus.

Bruce Willis stars as the assassin in The Jackal, so we can safely rule out upper-crust English charm right away. And don't bother looking for the rifle, because it is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Willis has a gatling gun. Essentially it's a cannon mounted on the back of truck. That's all you need to know if you're wondering where the producers of this film were aiming, because it's smack-dab in the middle of the 16-25 year-old male demographic, which, as the studio bean-counters tell them, doesn't look for characters or themes, but just a lot of guns and noisy, exploding stuff.

The entire setting of Forsythe's novel is discarded in this remake, and except for the enigmatic Jackal, the plot and characters are drastically altered. The American government learns that The Jackal is on a mission and FBI agent Carton Preston (Sidney Poitier) is charged with finding him and bringing him down. That's about as much of Forsythe's story to find here. We are also given two new characters: Richard Gere as imprisoned IRA soldier Declan Mulqueen, who knew The Jackal once upon a time, and Russian intelligence agent Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora). Preston decides Mulqueen will need to be released from jail in order to help him track the dangerous killer, and the last time I saw that happening Nick Nolte was telling Eddie Murphy that a "Zagnut" bar was his goddam dinner.

The whole point of The Jackal is that Mulqueen and The Jackal really, really hate each other. Can't stand each other, see, and while the cat-and-mouse game is underway, what we're really dealing with is an old grudge. Zinneman's film is about men we never really know, taking on thankless jobs, and yet, under the surface, respecting each other as professionals. The Jackal shoves the detective character into the background, and we are presented with the equivalent of two schoolboys getting ready to fight because somebody said something or did something some time ago. And then it all grinds to a conclusion. Gunfire, explosions, the final scene where the two guys get to confront each other in that special, virile way.... yawn....

Is Willis good? I guess, but he doesn't have the smiling charm of a killer that Edward Fox knew how to do so well. Poitier? Frankly, I don't know anything that Poitier has done in the last ten years that has made any impression at all. I like Sidney Poitier a lot, but I wish he would do more interesting movies. Should I talk about Gere's Irish accent? No, I guess I won't since that's been savaged by so many other writers. Sometimes it's best to just let things be.

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As to the DVDs, some people might score them very close, simply because The Jackal is a Universal Collector's Edition, while The Day of the Jackal is pretty much just the movie. It's a shame that Universal couldn't dig up some special-edition content for the latter, but that's probably not so easy when a film is more than 25 years old. The quality level of The Jackal is top-notch stuff, with great 5.1 audio and picture and extras that include a "making-of" documentary and a commentary track with Michael Caton-Jones. The Day of the Jackal has an acceptable print that, while a bit grainy here and there, is still the best home video of the film yet made available. The sound is the original 1.0, and I guess I'm not too bothered that somebody didn't try to muck it up with a new 5.1 mix.

But The Day of Jackal also has a street price around $10 less than its high-tech counterpart. My advice is to take that extra ten bucks and get a couple of Forsythe novels at your local second-hand bookstore.

— RW

The Day of the Jackal

The Jackal: Collector's Edition

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