Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Another Revisit of an Old Movie

(Yes, yes, I know: they've misspelled Zinnemann!)

After the disappointment of Anton Corbijn's recent film The American, I felt compelled to revisit the film I felt it tried to channel, Fred Zinnemann's 1973 classic The Day Of The Jackal.

Every time I see this film I think: this is how you make a political thriller, even if I suppose there are limits to how many stories can be told in this way. And maybe it's so successful because, once again, it has a great book at its core: Frederick Forsyth's Edgar Award-winning novel of the same name (1971). But film adaptations of books are an interpretive art, like a great pianist playing another composer's works; and Zinnemann's adaptation, from a screenplay by Kenneth Ross, feels like the story was always meant for the big screen.

To recap that earlier review, The Day Of The Jackal is tells of a mostly-fictitious plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle in the late '60s. The underground military organization OAS (as it happens, a real entity), unhappy with what they see as de Gaulle's "betrayal" of soldiers who fought for France in Algeria, are desperate to kill the President to restore the country's honor. When their own efforts fail again and again, they decide to hire an expert. The man they select is described only as "a foreigner," and seems likely to be from Britain. But this is never made clear, and we learn nothing else about him. But for the next two hours we watch him slowly and methodically implement his plan, always trying to stay one step ahead of French and British police, who are busy infiltrating and wire-tapping and torturing in a similarly ingenious fashion.

Apart from this inherently dramatic skeleton, the film is remarkable for its style, playing almost like a documentary, with a sparse vibe and no-nonsense manner that was uncommon in thrillers of the time. And contrasting Zinnemann's approach with a present-day film like, say, one of the Jason Bourne trilogy is to really see the contrast. Jackal has almost no soundtrack except for a moment at the film's opening. Camera work is straightforward, and the plot unfolds in a linear and chronological fashion and very naturalistically. There are no special effects used to speak of, and many of the film's outdoor shots appear to have been made with hand-held cameras, giving parts of the film an almost home-movie aspect (I find myself thinking of the Zapruder film). Hand-held cameras are common tools today, I know, but as always we seem to first recognize a thing and then try to improve on it: "wiggly-cam" is now a studied art, a way of "bringing no-production-values 'TV grittiness' to YOUR film!" Ugh. I cringe when I see ads where professional actors are filmed by professional camera operators who studied wiggly-cam techniques in college, all pretending to be common folks trying to tell you how great Product X really is.

Alas, I digress. But The Day Of The Jackal seems an embodiment of all that is NOT this.

While the lead role of the Jackal went to Briton and recent Acadamy Award winner Edward Fox, no one in the film, including him, was a very big name, which the Wikipedia article speculates was to blame for the fim's modest box office. But the film is not without its star power: we are treated to several luscious European locations--Vienna, Rome, Genoa, Nice, Paris and London as well as rural England--something which Americans have always had some taste for.

Despite the violent sinew at the center of the story, the film feels fairly quiet and has a measured pace (though perhaps present-day films have jaded me--maybe it was meant to be frenetic). But you're kept at the edge of your seat by such delicious tension! It's the perfect game of high stakes cat-and-mouse: how long can the mouse outwit the cat before the cat gets lucky or learns the ropes? We're not led to root for the criminal, exactly, but the battle is laid out very simply, this side against that one, as opposed to a film like Salt where you don't really know what's going on (unless you're my wife). For my tastes, this makes for a very satisfying story, where the central dilemma is so compelling that minimal bullshit is needed for adornment. And to tell a basically simple story with a no-frills manner and have it be gripping seems, well, a rare triumph. For an American audience, this particular story is the more effective because we have no particular investment with either side (except, perhaps, for the side of lawfulness). The story could conceivably have a compelling ending whichever way the scales tip.

There are so many little candid-camera touches, especially in crowd scenes or outdoor scenes, where the action seems to have been caught almost accidentally. People are caught looking slightly out of character, like an actor filmed between takes. This is one of the things that gives the film a documentary feel, a sense of authenticity; much appears not to have been scripted.

One thing I did notice. Though I said I wasn't aware of any special effects to speak of in the film, there is one bit of studio magic which caught my eye on a repeated viewing: in filming the parades for Liberation celebration in Paris, there are sounds of airplanes flying overhead as part of the military show. But we never see the airplanes, only a rapidly-passing shadow perfectly centered on the roadway--for several shots. They're almost convincing, but, there's something not quite right... Well, at 3:PM the sun would not be directly overhead, and the likelihood that the shadows would fall exactly over the parading columns--three times--is, well, nil. But I'd never noticed the detail as being fake before. This is no criticism--the film suffers not one whit for it, and one would never even notice--but I mention it because I still wonder whether the crowd scenes were even staged or merely stolen from some other event. They look that authentic.

Not everyone cares for older films, which is a real pity. But if you're not opposed to the idea, put this one on the Netflix cue and give yourself a treat. And a lesson in great filmmaking from a master.

I give this one an A.


shrimplate said...

I've seen it a couple times. The central character is rather disturbing to me. I think it's an accurate portayal of a well-organized psychopath; a conscience-less hired killer.

wunelle said...

I suppose such people exist, and I wonder how one MAKES such a person? Is it a certain kind of military training (as they imply)? Or is the guy just a sociopath to start with?

Maybe it's just a certain kind of mind that likes a chess-game-like challenge. My buddy Jeffy seems to love a good challenge laid before him; he's wired to fix things when he sees a problem (not, I hasten to add, that he seems like a killer to me!). Me, I'm lazy and just hope the problem will go away.

I guess I'm too lazy to be a hired gun! ;-)