Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Day of the Jackal

1973, UK/France, directed by Fred Zinnemann

The 1970s were very strong on the big screen police procedural, and this to my mind remains near the top of the heap, partly because it's really two procedurals in one -- the criminal at work and the police on his trail, with the structure lifted from Frederick Forsyth's detail-heavy/character-light novel. The central character, played by Edward Fox, is quite deliberately a cipher, a point underlined a touch obviously in the coda, but this does remove the need to give him much in the way of depth; by contrast, the very occasional suggestions of actual real lives for the other characters are quite welcome even if left mostly undeveloped.

As a piece of film construction, it's deeply impressive, bringing together multiple sources of information efficiently and clearly -- even when we're switching locales, we're always aware of where we are and why it matters, and Zinnemann establishes his locations with minimal fuss, with none of those ungainly and often-parodied datelines. More awkward are the many different accents -- both because of the actors themselves and individual performance decisions, some nominally French characters speak in flawless British accents whereas others add hints of local colour either because they are, say, French or because they somehow feel as though adding a Gallic burnish helps their credibility.

At times, it's what Zinnemann doesn't do that's at least as important: unlike in many of his earlier films, or in Hollywood filmmaking generally, he avoids musical emphasis designed to amp up the emotional impact, for instance -- a decision that seems to parallel the Jackal's completely emotionless killings. The silence, or the use of background noise alone, is especially effective in the film's final, extended set piece, which uses a real parade as a backdrop for the climax, Zinnemann's often mobile camera especially good at picking up little details of the Parisian streets to lend texture to the central narrative. Those sequences reminded me, of all things, of Maurice Pialat's L'Enfance nue, of all things -- that film also opens with a real parade, albeit on a different scale, but it, too, serves to anchor a carefully constructed narrative with an air of authenticity.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States