Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Day of the Jackal


How do you make a film about a man who is trying to assassinate Charles de Gaulle in 1963, when everyone knows he died in 1970, at the age of 80, more or less peacefully? By paying obsessive attention to detail, that’s how. This is based, very faithfully, on a book by Frederick Forsyth, and tells the imaginary story of how a man known only as the Jackal (Edward Fox, in the best role of his life) is hired by angry veterans of the Algerian war to assassinate the big guy. De Gaulle’s ego won’t permit him to change his schedule or saturate the country with troops hunting for the man, so it falls to one police detective (Michael Lonsdale, in a superbly underplayed performance) and his assistant to track him and catch him. He is given a blank check to do anything he needs to do, short of announcing he’s looking for a killer. (The first thing he tells his assistant is, “We begin by realizing that, aside from President de Gaulle, we are the two most powerful people in France.”) The first hour or so is devoted to the Jackal’s meticulous and ingenious preparations. I think most people will find themselves reluctantly sort of rooting for him; I know I did. Then the tension begins ratcheting up, and reaches almost unbearable heights as he penetrates further and further into the armed camp that is looking for him. The climax happens during a huge celebration of Liberation Day on the streets of Paris, and feels absolutely authentic, like it’s news cameras. The ending is abrupt, surprising, and ultimately satisfying. This is simply one of the best thrillers ever made.

And it was re-made, in 1997, with Bruce Willis in a pretty much textbook lesson in what has gone wrong with thriller films in 30 years. This movie sucked so badly that Forsyth had his name taken off, and the director, Fred Zinneman, fought to be sure the new piece of shit was not called The Day of, but simply The Jackal. You could compare them frame by frame as an object lesson in what not to do when remaking a film, but I’ll just give one example. Edward Fox designs and commissions a bare-bones sniper rifle made from parts of other guns, and so compact it can fit inside a crutch. It’s a one-shot deal. If he misses, it will take him at least five seconds to reload. But by 1997, everything had to be big. Bruce Willis commissions Jack Black to make a monster machine gun that can turn a car into chunks of scrap metal in seconds. Need I say more?