Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal is an instruction manual on how to be a contract assassin, and in this scenario one hired to get Charles De Gaulle. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s novel, the picture’s got all the class you wished most of the James Bond pictures had; though Zinnemann takes the subject seriously, and though such a plot against the French leader never succeeded, the movie becomes a scenic fantasy of realism—fluid, with pleasing tourist locales and reeking with plausible skullduggery. It’s smooth as glass but with much more strength: a sort of docudrama before fashionably coined, it’s a fictional thriller so well crafted that you feel caught in the momentum of a glissade. Zinnemann’s mastery of minutia comes to the fore: The Day of the Jackal is really about a chameleon killer determined to do the job—even when the assignment has been discovered by the authorities. As Edward Fox super-efficiently plays him, the assassin’s insistence has nothing to do with politics—he’s apolitical as well as amoral—it has to do with proving that he can do it. Whoever stands in his way is wasted; the closer the French police more in on him, the more clever his stealthy means. Fox isn’t quite the appealing, sexy little number—his blondy haired, cracked tooth aristocratic air is smuggy—but his diminutiveness accounts for something menacing: his reduced physicality has challenged him to act out a suave macho horror, to prove his worth. It’s absolutely right that Zinnemann and Forsyth don’t provide any inner-views of Fox and even more right that they altered his character’s tallness in the book: often the most lethal killers are the “smallest” walking amongst us and rarely do we see them as threats. You’ll have to read the book to find out if Cyril Cusack’s gunsmith survives, as it’s left ambiguous on screen. (The remake Jackal, with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, has nothing on the original.)

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.