Mason Cross on The Day of the Jackal

Mason Cross examines the painstakingly realistic documentary feel of the film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 film of The Day of the Jackal, released just two years after the publication of Frederick Forsyth’s hit novel, is that it does not feel like fiction.

Like the book, the film opens with a real life event: the August 1962 assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle by disillusioned French militants. From there it transitions seamlessly into a taut thriller about the failed assassins engaging a mysterious foreigner, codenamed the Jackal, to complete the job.

By necessity, the film hews very closely to its source material, because the plotting of Forsyth’s book is every bit as meticulous and precise as the fictional plot within its pages.

Edward Fox is a great choice for the Jackal. He embodies the calculating sociopath of Forsyth’s book without any of the baggage one of the bigger names under consideration would have brought to the role.

Much as I’d love to see a version starring Jack Nicholson or Michael Caine in their early 1970s prime, they would both have been entirely wrong for this role, because you’d be rooting for the assassin rather than Michael Lonsdale’s Columbo-esque cop.

What really sets the film apart from the rest of the assassination thriller pack is the verisimilitude it brings to the various stages of the plot, from its grounding in real historical events to the painstakingly depicted manhunt for the assassin. The attention to detail in each scene, the interweaving of real historical figures and events, the omnipresent ticking clocks in the background, all work to create a documentary ambience that is reinforced by the almost total absence of a musical score.

The film feels much closer to docu-dramas such as All the President’s Men than its more obvious thriller cousins.

The detail is the thing I love most about The Day of the Jackal: the fascinating minutiae of the Jackal’s preparations for the assassination, from procuring a false passport and commissioning a bespoke sniper rifle, to the efficient covering of his tracks when the manhunt gets under way.

If the story becomes a police procedural in the second act, then the first act is a less well-trodden genre: assassin procedural. The coldly efficient way the Jackal goes about his business serves to throw the brief outbursts of violence into sharp relief, so that it’s genuinely shocking when he dispatches a blackmailing forger and an inquisitive lover with the same blank detachment with which he does everything else.

It’s testament to the skill of everyone involved that perhaps the most tense scene in the film involves a lone man with a rifle firing three rounds into a watermelon suspended from a tree.

The film, and particularly Fox’s largely silent performance, has influenced pretty much every cinematic depiction of a cold-blooded professional killer ever since, from Leon to the Bourne movies. The disturbing allure of the prepared lone wolf sniper was certainly a big inspiration for my own thriller, The Killing Season

By the climax, the film manages to pull off the novel’s delicate balancing trick of building unbearable tension even though the end is never in doubt: we know the Jackal will fail in his mission because we know de Gaulle was not assassinated in 1963. The historical backdrop is real, but these events never took place.

And yet, it doesn’t feel like fiction.

Mason Cross’s debut novel, slick, fast-paced thriller The Killing Season, will be published by Orion in April 2014.