Cinema: Zinnemann's Day

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Directed by FRED ZINNEMANN Screenplay by KENNETH ROSS

The Day of the Jackal makes one appreciate anew the wonderful narrative efficiency of the movies. Frederick Forsyth's bestselling novel—essentially what mystery buffs call a police procedural, but blown up to international proportions—kept losing its basically simple story line in the forest of words.

The writer required paragraphs to detail the procedures of an international man hunt, not to mention the procedures of the Jackal himself, a hired gun employed by disaffected French army officers to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.

This is the kind of material that a good director can give us in the wink of a panning camera's eye. Fred Zinnemann, happily shifting down from the upper-middlebrow range of A Man for All Seasons and Behold a Pale Horse, is a good director. A onetime film editor, he is a master of the short cuts that are the shortcut to supplying lots of information effortlessly. He is also a master of camera placement, a man who can give us the essence of a scene in one elegant, yet self-effacing setup. As a result, what might have been just another expensive entertainment becomes, on a technical level, a textbook on reels in the near-forgotten subject of concise moviemaking.

It also serves Zinnemann's subject well. In his handling of such a routine matter as an official car wheeling into the driveway of a ministry, or its occupant proceeding on his way up the stairs to his appointment, he tersely demonstrates the pomposity of power and its near impotence when confronting the anarchic brilliance of the Jackal. These darting insights in turn are emphasized by the quick restlessness of the killer's movements and the move ments of the camera as it follows him on his devious path toward his intended victim.

Such a role requires little more of Edward Fox than looking the part, which he does. But a platoon of expert character actors, led by Michel Lonsdale as a Maigret-like master of the hounds, and including such worthies as Eric Porter, Cyril Cusack and Delphine Seyrig, give a human resonance to the film. Author Forsyth, a dealer in stereotypes, never managed that. Best of all, Zinnemann understands what the oldtime action directors knew instinctively: violence and death do not arrive in pompous slow motion but shock us with their suddenness. Yet Zinnemann's handling of violence is tasteful; it also enhances the audience's uneasiness, since it can never be certain when the Jackal will, without warning, dispatch someone who unwittingly threatens his master plan.

It might be argued that The Day of the Jackal is an essentially trashy and improbable work, unworthy of Zinnemann's craft. But his careful detailing has a fascination all its own and, as it accumulates, it distracts us from our knowledge that De Gaulle died peacefully and privately years after the events alleged here. Eventually we begin to earnestly wonder if the net we see drawing ever more tightly around the Jackal will close in time or whether he will succeed in squirming through it to accomplish his mission impossible.

In short, as so often happens, a second-rate fiction has been transformed into a first-rate screen entertainment.

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