The Day of the Jackal and the joys of logistics porn
Like all of you, I imagine, the end of the year finds me crazy busy and low on gas.
But I wanted to sign off for 2023 by talking up a film I’ve wanted to write about all year but have not found the time to tackle until now, one of my favourite analogue political thrillers and among the most underrated films of 1973, Fred Zinnerman’s The Day of the Jackal.
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The Day of the Jackal is set in 1963, in the aftermath of France’s defeat in Algeria and the decision by then French president Charles De Gaulle to grant that country independence. We still talk a lot about the Vietnam War and its impact, but the decade long independence struggle in Algeria was not only one of the first major national liberation struggles post WWII, it was one of the defining political issues of 1950s Europe. And France’s loss, hard on the heels of their defeat by the North Vietnamese in Indochina, was a rallying point for the French far right, who blamed civilian politicians, particularly de Gaulle, for not pursuing France’s military efforts hard enough.
Anyway, having failed to assassinate De Gaulle themselves, a far right group of former military personnel, the Secret Armed Organisation (OAS) – a real life outfit that been active in a covert capacity during the Algerian conflict – hire a suave, ruthless, and anonymous British assassin, only ever known as ‘Jackal’ (Edward Fox), to kill the de Gaulle. They offer Jackal half a million dollars (yes, I know, but it was a lot of money at the time) to do the job. He agrees on the condition that no one outside the remaining senior OAS command is told about the hit, which he will do at a time, place and method of his choosing.
To fund the job, the OAS carry pull a series of heists, which in turn alert the French authorities to the fact that something is up. Through their network of informers and round the clock surveillance the OAS command, the authorities eventually twig to the fact that an assassination attempt is being planned. A dour but tenacious French police inspector, Lebel, is assigned to find out more, and to identify and capture Jackal before he can strike. Lebel’s task is made more difficult by orders that his investigation must be carried out in strict secrecy, so as not to alarm the public and tip off Jackal.
Nonetheless Jackal is alerted that the authorities are closing in on him but decides to go ahead with the job anyway.
There are several things I like about The Day of the Jackal.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not averse to a good contemporary espionage type thriller, but my heart belongs to the analogue variant of these. I will take From Russia with Love (1963) over a Jason Bourne film any day. This is largely because they emphasise a grittier, more human cat and mouse conflict, rather than lots of scenes in which a man or woman stands in a room full of powerful computers and yells at his underlings to pull up every mobile phone call made in Prague in the last 48 hours.
The Day of the Jackal has a great British/European cast. In addition to Fox, there is Alan Badel as the French Minister in charge of the investigation, Michael Lonsdale (probably best known as Hugo Drax in the 1979 Bond film, Moonraker) as Lebel, and Derek Jacobi as Lebel’s assistant, Caron. The supporting includes Olga Georges-Picot as the widow of a French soldier in Algiers, who is assigned by the OAS to infiltrate the investigation into Jackal by sleeping with one of the senior officials overseeing it. Jean Martin, who played the commander of the French forces Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), is an OAS courier, and British actors Cyril Cusack and Ronald Pickup play the Jackal’s gun maker and forger, respectively.
The film is based on a 1971 novel by Frederick Forsyth. To my surprise, Forsythe is still alive and published a book as recently as 2018, but he was a particularly big deal in the 1970s and 1980s, when three highly successful adaptations of his books appeared in a row. In addition to The Day of the Jackal, these were The Odessa File (1974), about a journalist who stumbles across an underground network of Nazi fugitives, and The Dogs of War (1980), based on his book of the same name about mercenaries hired by a British industrialist to depose the government of the fictional African country, so he can pillage their mineral wealth. All three films took issues that were coursing through the body politic at the time and combined them with a sense of faux tabloid realism and a popular thriller treatment. And all three feature a solid dose of what I might call logistics porn.
The Day of the Jackal spends a hell of a lot of time just showing things being done and the minutia involved. For Jackal this includes creating and sourcing a false identity and designing, ordering and learning how to use a bespoke lightweight sniper rifle. The latter features a series of extremely low key and clinical discussions with Cusack’s gunsmith, which are kind of an introverted version of the scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) when Travis Bickle buys weapon from ‘Easy Andy’ the gun salesman, played by Steven Price. The mechanics of the police investigation into Jackal’s identity and whereabouts is also painstakingly rendered and I love every minute of it.
The Day of the Jackal was one of the last films in the lengthy career of Zinnerman, whose work included High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953), so the guy knew what he was doing. He delivers a terrific thriller that is detailed in right places and taunt and sparse were it needs to be. Exactly who Jackal is and why he decides to go ahead with the hit, despite knowing that the authorities are onto him, is never really answered, although it is sort of inferred that it involves a mix of nihilistic fatalism and professional pride. And while the logistic porn is laid on thick, the film also delivers some solid action thrills, especially as the increasingly cornered Jackal gets innovative to evade his pursuers.
My top 10 new to me films of 2023
PM Press, the publisher of the three pulp and popular fiction history books I co-edited with Iain McIntyre, is having a 50% off sale under January 1, 2024, with the code, GIFT.
If you have not got them already, this is your ideal chance to pick up some or all of Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950-1980, Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950-1980, and the award winning Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1985, cheap.
Australian folks, be warned, postage from the US is steep, so it you are interested in either Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats and/or Dangerous Visions and New Worlds, I have copies of both and will happily fix you up with them. Send me a message if interested.
If you are like me, then one of the best things about the Christmas/New Year period is the opportunity to actually get some quality reading done. And what better to read than a solid dose or two of heist noir. My crime novels Gunshine State and its sequel Orphan Road, have you covered in this regard, and both are available through Down and Out Books via all the usual channels.
The most recent of these, Orphan Road sees my (not so) professional thief Gary Chance become involved in the murky aftermath of one of Australia’s largest heists, Melbourne’s Great Bookie Robbery. In April 1976, a well organised gang stole as much as $16 million from bookmakers in the Victoria Club, located on the second floor of a building in Queen Street in the Melbourne’s CBD. The real amount was never confirmed and the culprits, although they are known now, were never identified, or apprehended. As the starting point for Orphan Road, I posited the question, what if a large amount of cash wasn’t the only thing stolen that day in April 1976? And then, what if Chance was engaged nearly half a century later, to try and find that other thing that was stolen.
And if pulp history is your thing, my academic monograph, Horwitz Publications, Pulp Fiction & the Rise of the Australian Paperback, comes out in paperback at a more affordable price than the hardback edition on January 16, 2024. You can check out the book on the Anthem website here.
Horwitz Publications, Pulp Fiction & the Rise of the Australian Paperback is the first book length examination of Australian pulp and one of the few detailed studies I am aware of a specific pulp publisher to appear anywhere, the post war Australian pulp publisher Horwitz Publications. It not only looks the genres Horwitz published, but the writers and artists who worked for it, including some ground-breaking research on Australian female pulp writers. It also reveals the hidden role that Horwitz, derided purely as a low rent purveyor of cheap, salacious fiction for most of its existence, had in the take up of the paperback by mainstream Australian publishers, as well as how Horwitz pulp was a key vehicle for powerful vernacular modernist currents that coursed through Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.
Whatever you are doing, have a great break and catch you all in 2024.
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