Friday, April 6, 2012

Genre Spotlight #1.1.: The Day of the Jackal

Every decade brings new worries, and genre films are particularly good at capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of the time. Every month, Genre Spotlight takes a look at a genre in a particular time and place, shows a certain director or screenwriter approached said genre, and tries to shine some light on what the cultural significance of the movement was. This month takes a look at the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

Grade: 83 (A-)

The 1960s and 1970s were a time fraught with war, assassination, ideological conflict, political and social revolution, and changing styles and attitudes. It’s no surprise, then, that political thrillers of the time reflected conspiracies among shady government organizations or subversives in the world. Some films reflected the Kennedy assassination, others Watergate, but all reflected a world where the men in charge weren’t the most trustworthy individuals. Great directors of the new generation (Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Alan J. Pakula) brought political concerns to their films, but the old guard wasn’t completely devoid of vital filmmakers. Where many of his contemporaries (Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder) shied away from the filmmaking scene or showed a loss of vitality, Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 film The Day of the Jackal shows a consummate craftsman with a clear understanding of the political climate of the era.

In 1962, an attempt on the life of the French president Charles de Gaulle caused the French government to crack down on the militant French underground group the OAS, who were angry with de Gaulle over his decision to give Algeria its independence. Undaunted, the remaining OAS leadership  regroup a year later and decide to hire an outsider- and Englishman- to assassinate de Gaulle. The Englishman (Edward Fox) is known only as “the Jackal”, and he is a highly professional, meticulous individual who works as a professional assassin. The French get word of the OAS plot, however, and now it’s up to brilliant detective Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) to stop them.

Zinnemann establishes the dangerous mood of the world early on with a recreation of the 1962 attempt on de Gaulle’s life. It seems like an ordinary day, with business as usual for the French government. But when several gunmen wait for the president’s vehicle in the street, the president is nearly hit by a bullet. It’s a tumultuous world, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up any time soon.

Zinnemann was a master craftsman with a meticulous nature, and he knew how to tell a story visually, but he once stressed “the three most important parts of the film are the script, the script, and the script”.  Accordingly, the script is a tightly woven tale of multifaceted organizations, their ideological positions, and the moral implications of their decisions and how it they reflect the world around them. But while Zinnemann gives much credit to the script, it’s hard to deny that The Day of the Jackal wouldn’t be half as good in someone else’s hands, or that those tropes (meticulousness, looks at ideologies and organizations, moral decisions as a response to a terrible event) reflect his other works (High Noon, From Here to Eternity). There’s some real personality behind the camera.

It’s a rather intelligent piece of work about men of principles unable to compromise. The OAS is made up mostly of ex-military men who believe de Gaulle is a traitor for letting Algeria slip from France’s fingers. At this point, France had long lost its position as a superpower of the world, and their loss of their colonies (Algeria, Vietnam) were doubly embarrassing for any military men. The world was changing, but these men believed that it was a slap in the face of the men who died trying to keep France in power. Their methods are deplorable, but they’re men with principles, and they need to preserve them, moral implications be damned.

This isn’t to paint the French government as angels, however- they’re more than willing to torture an OAS member in order to get information about the Jackal. They threaten a woman who spent the night with the Jackal, her association with him being “very serious” despite the fact that she doesn’t know anything. Zinnemann approaches this with a cool distance that allows the audience to make up their own minds. They’re trying to do the right thing, but they’re not necessarily always doing it the right way.

And what of the Jackal? He has no ideological stake in this, so it seems- he’s a professional, and he has a job to do. Any moral feelings he might have aren’t given any attention. In the film’s final moments- it isn’t a spoiler to say that Jackal fails, considering that de Gaulle was never assassinated in real life- we know just as much about the Jackal as we did in the beginning: virtually nothing. Even the French police are puzzled as to who this guy was and why he was doing this beyond the money. It plays into both the fear of the unknown and the fear that there were men like this in the 70s- people whose greatest principles were their professionalism. The Jackal is more than willing to kill people along the way (a woman who discovers he’s wanted by the law, a forger who attempts to blackmail him), but he does not kill the gunsmith who helped him. Why should he? He did a job, asked no questions, and stuck to the deal.

There’s a tragic event in the margins beyond the de Gaulle attempts- the Kennedy Assassination, which took place only months after this fictional attempt. Zinnemann throws in a few references to Kennedy’s doomed fate- the president’s picture, the Jackal doing target practice on a watermelon (which explodes like Kennedy’s head), and a man being carted off to an ambulance during the parade coinciding with the attempt on de Gaulle’s life (the same thing happened with Kennedy). There’s a dread-filled feeling of inevitability lurking within The Day of the Jackal- this attempt is going to fail, but there’s something horrible just around the corner.

The Day of the Jackal radiates slow-burning tension and quiet dread (there’s virtually no music), and the only real flaw comes from a sense that while Zinnemann was willing to portray sex, he doesn’t do so with much sense that it means much to these people- the Jackal’s relations with one woman seem like a random dalliance and slip-up for a professional. But it’s a minor quibble for such a well-crafted thriller, one whose influence reaches far- Munich, Carlos, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The American all show the film’s influence. The former three tap into the time and place portrayed in The Day of the Jackal (though they all cover different territory), where the latter is too obsessed with style and devoid of political relevance to be anything beyond a solid thriller. The great political thrillers, like The Day of the Jackal, reflect the fears and anxieties of their selected time. If they’re not going to do that, then what use are they?

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