The Day of the Jackal contains a superb scene that looks like a choice candidate to fulfill the requirements of someone looking for great stand alone scenes – I refer to when the Jackal buys a huge melon at the market, takes it into the woods, paints a smiley face on it, hangs it from a tree, and uses it for deGaulle’s head in target practice. I’m going to leave it alone and refrain from comment. Sometimes in appreciation the old adage that less is more certainly applies. So what I’m going to do here is approach this film in a roundabout, bizarre fashion. Please permit me this indulgence. I’d like to make a weird analogy between an observation a famous film critic once made about movies in general and a somewhat similar state of affairs created by the Jackal in the eponymously titled film.
To this day many consider James Agee to be the gold standard for popular film criticism in America, and I think a good part of the reason why is his empathic identification with the audiences that were reading his columns as he wrote them. In his inaugural column for The Nation on December 26, 1942 he wrote:
“I suspect that I am, far more than not, in your own situation: deeply interested in moving pictures, considerably experienced from childhood on in watching them and thinking and talking about them, and totally, or almost totally, without experience or even much second hand knowledge about how they are made.”
Wow. Of course, he was right. I’d like to put an unusual spin on this observation of Agee’s.
One wonders what Agee would have made of a film like The Day of the Jackal that requires at least some willingness on the part of the filmgoer to acknowledge a parallel between the kind of ignorance of moviemaking Agee references and the sorts of deceptions and illusions the Jackal (played by Edward Fox) creates and weaves throughout the film. Four of the people the Jackal crosses paths with in the course of his plot to kill deGaulle- the forger, the woman he meets in the hotel, Colette, the man who picks him up in the Turkish bath, and the landlady of the building from which he plans to shoot – he kills- the forger because of his attempt to blackmail the Jackal, Colette because the police are questioning her, the gay lover because the man has seen the Jackal, in disguise, identified on television, and the landlady because he cannot have anyone witnessing him inside the building. In other words, all four know too much. In one way or another the Jackal’s concealment of reality has been penetrated.. The fifth such person, the gun maker, is left alone without explanation. Maybe the Jackal trusts him, or perhaps intends to deal with him after he kills deGaulle. In any case, concealment of reality is the operating theme in the plot of the film as much as it is in James Agee’s remark, albeit within very different circumstances. The mysteries of filmmaking exist in order to entertain; the Jackal’s, in order to deceive.
A workmanlike film such as this could probably only have been made by a studio veteran of Hollywood mainstreamers, which is exactly what Fred Zinneman was. (Look, I’m just a casual watcher of movies with a humble, modest collection and by complete chance it contains four or five Zinneman pictures – simply by virtue of the fact that I try to represent various genres of Hollywood films well.) (We can safely disregard Andrew Sarris’ nonsensical observations on Zinneman in – bloviation such as “At its best, his direction is inoffensive; at its worst, it is downright dull.”)
The gun maker – “Gozzi” – is completely and totally aware that the Jackal is an assassin, ordering a gun to kill somebody with. The forger is not – he only remarks that the Jackal must “have a big job” in the works. Too, the Jackal emphasizes – in very threatening, forceful tones, that, once the work is done, he wants the forger to forget everything. Yet he does none of this with the gun maker, indicating that he must have quite a bit more faith in him than he does in the forger. Still, the forger does not take the Jackal seriously and attempts to sell him back documents he had originally agreed to give back for free.
Notice – when the forger attempts to blackmail the Jackal, the Jackal kills him. When the gun maker reveals he had to make the gun out of a totally different material than the Jackal had requested, barely a word is mentioned about it. The Jackal’s response is “Where can I practice?” When the Jackal learns that Colette has been talking to the authorities he kills her immediately, with no hesitation (as he did the forger). Ditto the gay man – the decision to kill him is arrived at with no hesitation whatsoever. Only the landlady’s killing seems to have been planned in advance. But whatever the situation, the concealment of reality is paramount.
“What’s all this got to do with James Agee?” I can hear you screaming. Only this – what would it be like to watch a film in which you got yourself totally emotionally involved – laughing, crying, scared to death – and then could suddenly see the director, the cameraman, the sound recordists, the lighting director, and the rest of the crew, as well as the actors, as the movie was actually being filmed. How would you feel? Would you view the film differently? Of course you would. The necessary concealment of reality that’s required for things to proceed properly would have been removed. It’s something to contemplate, isn’t it?