Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

"How did you know whose telephone to tap?"

"I didn't. So I tapped all of them."

 I read the novel in my teens, and very quickly. It's not just that it's a somewhat unputdownable thrilller with no pretensions to literary ambition, but the prose was extraordinary basic: bare, functional, impossible to praise or criticise. Indeed, probably the best adjective for Frederick Forsyth's prose is "absent" but it does its job for what is probably Forsyth's best novel in a series of ever-diminishing returns.

I mention this because the film is an extraordinary faithful adaptation. Fred Zinnemann shows admirable restraint in following the style of the book and allowing the narrative to do its natural job with no unnecessary directorial flourishes to take us out of the style. He's unafraid to have long periods of silence if that's how best to tell the story and ends up producing a film that is slow, unhurried yet pacy. That's as much of a talent as any directorial trick.

Edward Fox is superb, of course, playing his rather flat cipher of a character, and the same is true of the impressive cast of largely British character actors. But what makes this film is the story- a slow, methodical look at how a high profile assassination is carried out in a pre-digital, pre-surveillance age that is little more than a decade before my time; I can still remember those French bank vans from trips to France as a young child in the early '80s. This is an age where it is relatively easy to fake documents yet the French state still practises both torture and judicial killing. Social attitudes may have improved since 1963 but it's easy to be jealous of the privacy that could be enjoyed back then.

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