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The Plot to Kill de Gaulle

Fred Zinnemann’s “clock management” in The Day of the Jackal

By David Lehman | March 5, 2022
Edward Fox in the The Day of the Jackal (Everett Collection)
Edward Fox in the The Day of the Jackal (Everett Collection)

Suspense is a function of time. Will the bigoted white cop extricate the Black car crash victim from the burning car before the gas tank explodes, or will they both go up in flames (Crash)? The clock is ticking. Will the ordinarily cautious tennis player up his game enough to win his match in straight sets so he can hasten to confront his nemesis at an amusement park (Strangers on a Train)? Every moment matters. In neither case do we know how things will turn out. All we can do is hope.

But how do you generate suspense when the film is about a historical event—one for which you already know the outcome? In The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinnemann’s brilliant 1973 film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s equally brilliant 1971 novel, the question is: Will Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), the dogged police inspector, foil the crafty assassin nicknamed the Jackal (Edward Fox) and prevent the assassination of Charles de Gaulle, president of the French republic, on August 25, 1963, the nation’s Liberation Day? History answers with an emphatic “yes”—yet the movie is nothing if not suspenseful.

The second time I watched The Day of the Jackal, I couldn’t help noticing how many clocks there are in the movie. (31, by one unofficial count.) Wall clocks, table clocks, grandfather clocks, clocks at railway and police stations. In nearly every scene, our gaze is directed to the passing of time. And so, though we know the plot to kill de Gaulle will fail, the suspenseful seconds tick as the Jackal overcomes one obstacle after another in putting his plan in action, escaping detection, and coming close to achieving his goal.

You may find yourself rooting for the Jackal despite knowing that what he does is morally reprehensible. It’s not just that the Jackal gets most of the movie’s airtime, but that he is so good at what he does. As personified by Fox in an exemplary performance, the Jackal is blonde, handsome, resourceful, in fighting trim. He speaks with a patrician English accent. A master of disguises, he excels as a pickpocket, an identity thief, a quick-change artist, and a marksman. With a single chop he can noiselessly dispatch anyone who poses a significant risk—the forger who tries to blackmail him (the late Ronald Pickup), for example. Above all, he is a supreme model of the self-reliant individualist who resists the outreach of all authority.

The Jackal, who goes by many names, none of them real, has scruples but doesn’t let them get in his way. He spends the night with the comely Colette de Montpelier (Delphine Seyrig) in what appears to be an act of mutual seduction and satisfaction. On their next meeting, he delivers her a fatal blow after enjoying their renewed intimacy. Why? Because the police have interviewed her and are bound to return. That he kills her reluctantly is, of course, no comfort to Colette.

The Jackal benefits from the information leaked by a talkative cabinet minister to the honey whose trap he can’t resist. Otherwise, the assassin is on his own. At one time or another, he takes on the identity of a tourist, a Danish schoolteacher, and an old one-legged, decorated World War II veteran. The Jackal’s ability to elude his pursuers, who gradually grow to encompass two national intelligence agencies and the entire French police force, makes him, in effect, a man who does not exist. The concept itself is beguiling when you consider the many means of surveillance in operation today. In 2022, it would take some doing for a college graduate with a social security number to evade arrest for a variety of crimes, all the while enjoying trips to Italy and Switzerland, driving fancy cars, and spending quality time on the French Riviera and in Paris.

The movie is an object lesson in the successful translation of a novel to a movie. The book’s 358 pages are condensed to 2 hours and 25 minutes. Is something lost in the process? Forsyth lavishes multiple pages to the making of the long-range rifle with a silencer that can be disassembled and hidden when crossing borders. In the film, we lose this quality of meticulous exactness and authenticity, though Cyril Cusack’s sterling performance as the gunsmith conveys, in the brief time he has on screen, that the man is something of an artist, a consummate professional. In this sense he resembles the Jackal himself, who wins even Lebel’s grudging admiration but leaves him with the quandary summed up in the movie’s last line: “Who the hell was he?”

Both book and film illustrate an important historical event. De Gaulle—leader of the Free French in World War II, tallest statesman of his era, and constant thorn in the hide of the U.S. State Department—granted independence to Algeria, France’s most significant foreign colony, in 1959. Perhaps it was the wise thing to do. But the French had fought a long, bitter, costly war with the insurgents, and French military leaders really did try to assassinate de Gaulle. The betrayal they felt paralleled, to some extent, the betrayal felt by anti-Castro rebels when President Kennedy abandoned the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961.

Then, too, The Day of the Jackal reminds us that some conspiracies do succeed—and the term “conspiracy theory” should not be discredited. After all, it is the ground zero of all fiction, not just the “what if” variety in which, say, the Axis powers triumphed in World War II (as in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle), and we have empirical evidence of many conspiracies that were covered up at the time. The attempts on de Gaulle’s life preceded and perhaps foreshadowed the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963.

Football play-by-play analysts have a phrase that is useful here: clock management. With its intensity of tension, this political thriller ranks with Fred Zinnemann’s other standout achievements, which include High Noon, another film that relies on clocks to generate suspense, and From Here to Eternity. You can view The Day of the Jackal with pleasure multiple times, each time noticing something you hadn’t quite appreciated before: the soundtrack, the location shots of Paris, the convertible approaching the fork between roads to Italy and France, the clocks.

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