A professional assassin codenamed "Jackal" plots to kill Charles de Gaulle, the President of France.
Fredrick Forsyth had already sought out the framework of a real assassination attempt on De Gaulle by dissidents infuriated at his dissolution of the French Foreign Legion, and transformed it into an excellent, brilliantly researched if pulpish thriller, thus providing Fred Zinnemann (best know for High Noon) with the perfect template for this exhaustive procedural. In many ways, this outstanding piece of filmmaking marks the apotheosis of a certain style of thriller that has since fallen out of fashion — the mind game.
Built with the minutiae of a Swiss watch, without any direct showiness but an arch precision, it is about the coldness of purpose, the amoral planning of Edward Fox’s Jackal and the diligence of the man out to stop him, played with wry intelligence by British actor Tony Britton.
What may sound obvious, a clearly linear plot, is made infinitely complex by the portrayal of this empty vessel of a killer by Fox. He is boyish, very charming, a ruthless, soulless man who takes in everyone, including the watcher. That is Zinnemann’s cleverest ploy, he allows us to root for The Jackal, to pine for him to succeed. Morality is thrown awry. Yet, he is a ghost, we know nothing about him except the role he has assumed. An actor playing an actor; as a theme the film exposes the strange shell of moviemaking itself, the lure of its obvious deception.
On the other side of this cloudy moral divide, lies the investigation. Hampered by the lack of identity for the quarry, it is fascinating picture of sheer resolves, painstaking research, and they inch by inch toward this elusive assassin. The question, which drives the plot at a heady pace, is will they reach him time? A strange, but real, kind of tension given we know, factually, that De Gaulle died peacefully in his bed. How The Jackal will come to fail is blindingly unforeseen, for all the detail, his near-perfect planning, fate will assert its own reckoning.
There is true beauty in the realism at the heart of what could come across a fanciful movie plot, with its documentarian coolness of execution, the crisp rhythms of Zinnemann’s direction, we feels we are staring through a window into the shadowy recesses of history.
Outstanding on almost every level.