In his review Executive Action, Dalton Trumbo’s masterpiece about the Kennedy assassination, the reliably clueless Roger Ebert compares it unfavorably to another 1973 film about the attempted assassination of another world leader. “There’s something exploitative and unseemly in the way this movie takes the real blood and anguish and fits it neatly into a semi-documentary thriller,” he says. “That wasn’t the case with Fred Zinnemann’s movie about a plot against De Gaulle, “The Day of the Jackal” (which has finally made it to the Loop after months in the neighborhoods). We knew that was fiction from the beginning; it was well-paced, the characters were brilliantly drawn and we were entertained. But “Executive Action” doesn’t seem much to want to entertain.”
While there’s no conscious intent, either by Ebert, or by Zinnemann, to bury the tenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in an avalanche of mindless entertainment, Robert Ebert had a sensibility that was exquisitely attuned to the needs of the corporate establishment. It was inevitable that Hollywood would try to come to terms with the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X. It was also inevitable that the kind of writer who would eventually become rich and famous marketing a dumbed down version of film criticism for network TV would try to steer people away from a painful confrontation with recent American history towards a big budget European dream vacation disguised as a political thriller. That’s all well and good. The Day of the Jackal is a well-made, entertaining movie that quite skilfully transforms the narrative sensibilities of the novel into the language of cinema. But it’s also a chilling, authoritarian argument for statism, a clever pitch for what would later become known as the “war on terror.”
On the surface, The Day of the Jackal is a leftist, or at least a liberal film. The bad guys are the OAS, a conspiracy of right-wing extremists inside the French Army, and a cold, sociopathic, professional assassin from the United Kingdom played by Edward Fox, the “Jackal.” Charles de Gaulle was an authoritarian, and probably a conservative, but that’s not why the Organisation de l’armée secrète wanted to kill him. In 1962, he did what no previous government had dared. He granted Algeria its independence, something that immediately made him public enemy number one among the 3 million French citizens still in Algeria, and among a large faction of die hard French nationalists inside the army. The Day of the Jackal opens up with a fictionalized account of a real assassination attempt the OAS had made on de Gaulle on August 22, 1962. As he was travelling to Orly Airport, 12 OAS gunmen opened fire with machine guns, and riddled his Citroen DS 19 with 140 bullets. Fortunately for de Gaulle he had something John F. Kennedy lacked, a crack security team determined to save his life. Even though all four tires had been shot out, his driver hit the gas and managed to speed away to safety. The ring-leader of the conspiracy Jean Bastien-Thiry was shot for treason the next year.
The Day of the Jackal then leaves the semi-fiction for the just plain fictional. After the OAS realizes that de Gaulle’s secret service has them riddled with informers and provocateurs, their top leaders decide to go to an outsider, a blond, blue-eyed professional killer we know only by his code name “The Jackal.” They agree to pay him 500,000 Francs to kill de Gaulle, a price he rightfully points out, is a bargain. Each of the assassins in Executive Action got 125,000 dollars in a Swiss bank account and 25,000 dollars a year for life. The OAS is getting a lot for its money. Indeed, if the Warren Commission decided that John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a “lone nut,” the Jackal would more accurately be described as “a lone superman.” Roger Ebert argues that The Day of the Jackal is “put together like a fine watch” and “unfolds in almost documentary starkness.” That’s nonsense. The film is pure fantasy, enjoyable fantasy to be sure, but fantasy nonetheless. Where in Executive Action Dalton Trumbo shows us how much planning goes into a conspiracy to kill a head of state, and how many things could have gone wrong, The Day of the Jackal surrenders any logic its plot may have had to whatever emotions drive The Jackal to want to kill the President of France, even after his cover is blown, and he could easily walk away scot free with a quarter of a million Francs. The Jackal, like Osama Bin Laden, or ISIS, is the malevolent terrorist of our worst nightmares. He kills for the sake of killing. He has seemingly unlimited resources. He’s everywhere and nowhere. The only thing that can stop him is the powerful French state.
The character of the Jackal’s nemesis, Detective Claude Lebel, is as deceptive as the character of The Jackal himself. A rumpled middle-aged man played by Michael Londsale, Lebel appears to be a quiet, unassuming, even ineffectual little nebbish, but he’s actually a one-man Patriot Act, Dirty Harry with a pot belly. After de Gaulle’s secret service learns of the plot by kidnapping and torturing an OAS courier – the film is an unambiguous argument for the effectiveness of torture – Lebel is given “special powers” to do whatever he has to do to stop the assassination. He roots out an informer by wire tapping the entire high command of the French police. He establishes a network of mass surveillance, confiscating the guest registers of all the hotels in Paris and in the south of France, held back only by the technology available in 1973. Lebel would have loved 2016’s NSA. We hear “papers please” so many times in so many beautiful French cities that after awhile it just begins to feel more chic and European than fascist. In fact, we want those French police officers to stop acting like democratic sissies and do more than just ask for The Jackal’s papers. We want them to shoot the bastard in the head. Finally, at a Liberation Day ceremony, where the grandeur of the French state is put on full display – the final sequence of The Day of the Jackal was filmed at a real Liberation Day Parade – Lebel manages to kill The Jackal, who up until then had stayed one perilous step head of the police. They never find out his real name.
“Who was he?” a British police official wonders out loud, not answering his own question but leaving no doubt in the viewer’s mind what he stood for, the abstract principle of “terrorism,” something we’ll be at war with, forever.
Final Note: Wolfgang Petersen’s 1993 film In the Line of Fire — with Clint Eastwood in the Claude Lebel role and John Malcovich as an Americanized Jackal — is an obvious rip off of The Day of the Jackal right down to the nifty home-made gun. Malcovich is a much better villain than Edward Fox. “I want some goddamned respect!” Eastwood is pretty lame.