While the assassination of political figures has been a rampant piece of horrible histories for generations, its burst into fiction and the movies is a minuscule sub-genre that burnt bright and fast. Rogue Male offered alternate history, hiring Peter O’Toole to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The Day of the Jackal has Edward Fox hunting down President Charles de Gaulle. My reservations about The Day of the Jackal were not its subject matter or what it wished to do, that all sounded thoroughly marvellous. My wavering came from director Fred Zinnemann, a man whose work looks refined, but one that does nothing for me narratively.
A phenomenal change of pace sets him on the right track, though I am a sucker for action films written by Kenneth Ross. Between this and Black Sunday, he has fashioned out the ability to tell cutting, heavy stories with brilliant pacing. There is little room for respite in the life of The Jackal (Fox). He is the contract killer hired by revolutionaries who are fearful that their attempts on the life of De Gaulle will present them their demise. They are conniving cowards, but we are stuck with them and must make do with these horrible men. Still, The Jackal is a professional and is certain he can carry out their contract. He is the no-nonsense anti-hero that carries out the immoral deeds of immoral men, for they are too scared to do it themselves. Lucky we are that Fox has charisma oozing from every pore. He brushes shoulders with the dark and decrepit, the slimy con artists and cocky artists that are looking to make a quick buck selling passports and provisional licenses.
What separates The Jackal from these people, though, is that he has no time for their fluffy wordplay and faux niceties. Although a professional, he is soon in over his head. It is the classic tale of the hunter becoming hunted, and The Day of the Jackal is a tremendous understanding of those themes. Turning these themes on their head, it is the hunter who begins to utilise the knowledge he has of hunting to survive his own pursuers. They are desperate to get him, and it is here that the classic Zinnemann woes come into play. Where he is going and why is never made all that clear, but the collection of scenes he assembles is good enough to engage with and enjoy. Weaving away from danger every now and then, The Jackal jumps trains, flees hotels and paints his car to blend into his surroundings as he makes his way back to safety. Much of it is very good, slow-burning and effective, Zinnemann makes this cool character feel as though he has carried out a cinch.
But that is not the case. The Day of the Jackal does a very good job of downplaying the success it suffers from. Eventually, it becomes reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate. The Jackal is a soldier obsessed with his order. You cannot renege on the deal, for the deal would leave him short of the cash he has, so far, worked so gallantly and hard for. He dons his medals of a time when he was useful and subservient, but that has long passed him by. The Day of the Jackal has come, he has his orders and damned is he if he should not carry out his mission. Failure is not an option, and to not carry out his mission is to destroy his livelihood. It is the risk we run when hiring professional hitmen.