Reading the Screen: The Day of the Jackal
Posted by: David Pitt
I know how busy you are, so I bit the bullet and watched The Jackal, the 1997 movie based on Frederick Forsyth’s 1973 novel The Day of the Jackal. Now you don’t have to.
The Day of the Jackal is an excellent thriller. The story, set in 1963, revolves around an assassin’s scheme to murder the President of France; as the killer makes his preparations, Commissaire Claude Lebel, “the best detective in France,” pieces together the clues to his identity. Forsyth, a former political journalist, wrote the book in a documentary style, as though he were reporting events that had actually taken place.
The first movie based on the book, of course, was Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 classic The Day of the Jackal. Zinnemann understands the book. He shoots the movie as though he were shooting a documentary: there’s very little camera movement, except when it’s necessary to keep the actors in the frame, and in many key exterior scenes the action is occasionally obscured by people or objects getting between the camera and the action (actors move through crowds as though they’re unaware somebody’s filming them).
The performances of Edward Fox (as the Jackal) and Michel Lonsdale (as Lebel) are subtle and compelling — if you didn’t know they were actors, you’d swear they were real people, secretly being filmed. The movie has almost no music: this is reality we’re watching, and reality doesn’t have a musical soundtrack.
On the other hand, here’s Michael Caton-Jones’s The Jackal, in which the Deputy Director of the FBI teams up with a convicted IRA gunman to track down an assassion who’s been hired by an Azerbaijani mobster to rub out an unnamed target.
The movie is loud, brutish, and preposterous. The direction by Michael Caton-Jones is highly intrusive: lots of camera movement, lots of angles. He’s taken a documentary-style story, an historical period piece, and turned it into a mediocre contemporary thriller. The performances are okay (Bruce Willis plays the Jackal), but they are obviously performances: actors pretending to be other people.
Fred Zinnemann, or so the story goes, tried to get the studio to change The Jackal’s title, so it wouldn’t be associated with his movie. Frederick Forsyth also made sure people knew he wasn’t connected with the ’97 remake, and the opening credits say it’s based on the screenplay to the ’73 movie, not the book.
But I don’t think either of them had anything to worry about: anybody who watches the remake will know that these two fine craftsmen had nothing to do with it.