August 15, 2023

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL: The Seafood Snuff Film

Starring Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Terence Alexander, Michel Auclair, Alan Badel, Tony Britton, Derek Jacobi. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. (142 min)

I have a list of my personal choices for the greatest 100 movies ever made. If interested, you can find it HERE. It’s a fluid list that changes from time to time. I occasionally add new films (or older ones that are new to me) and remove others, while some titles climb or descend on the list based on my growing or waning appreciation of them. My age and changing tastes factor into the rankings, as do my personal values.

One film on the list is 1973’s The Day of the Jackal, based on Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling novel that speculates a 1963 assassination attempt on France’s president, Charles de Gaulle. It’s one of those rare “perfect” films that once ranked among my top 10 titles. 

There have been scores of great films, of course, and perfect ones are usually great by default (though not always). For me, the greatest of all time has always been Jaws, but have to acknowledge it ain't perfect. A perfect film, however, is technically, conceptually & creatively flawless. No throwaway scenes, redundant characters or questionable casting decisions. The direction, performances, pacing, editing, writing, cinematography and score are all spot-on. The i's are all dotted; the t's are all crossed. By that reckoning, I can't think of a single aspect of The Day of the Jackal that doesn't meet the criteria.

This is all-the-more impressive when one considers the film intentionally minimizes two aspects that often contribute to a movie's greatness: complex characters and a discernible music score. I never read the novel, but the most intriguing character in the film is the assassin (Edward Fox), who goes by the code name of Jackal. Even then, all we really know about him are his cold-blooded, calculating methods. And while music is present in the film, it's used very sparingly, enhancing the docudrama directorial style utilized by Fred Zinnemann.

As a matter of fact, I do like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.
Since a real assassination attempt on de Gaulle never actually occurred, we already know the Jackal - hired by the French military underground - is destined to fail, making the ending a foregone conclusion. But as they say, the journey is more important than the destination, and the journey this film takes is intricate, consistently fascinating and surprisingly suspenseful. 

I’ve seen The Day of the Jackal many times and it remains cinematic perfection. However, while recently revisiting the film, one key scene unexpectedly stirred my sense of moral outrage. Because of this, I’m sad to say, the film has dropped several spots on my list. 

That scene occurs late in the film. The Jackal has arrived in France to complete the job, and since authorities have already learned of the pseudonym he’s traveling under (Lundquist), a massive manhunt is underway. Visiting a bathhouse, he goes home with a gay man in order to hide out at his apartment. Later, the man brings home groceries for a romantic dinner, which includes a live lobster. As he holds up the lobster to show it off, the TV news announces “Lundquist” is wanted for murder and displays the Jackal's picture. Suddenly realizing the guy he picked up at the bathhouse is a killer, he drops the lobster, which hits the floor with a loud crack.

The Jackal kills the man off-screen, while the lobster lies on the floor, twitching a few times before dying. How do we know this? Out of the water, lobsters basically die when you look at ‘em crossed-eyed, let-alone being dropped five feet to the ground. In my neck of the woods is the Seaside Aquarium, which at one time was the home of Victor, an 80-year-old lobster who weighed 28 pounds. Some douchebag tried to steal him, then dropped him while trying to escape. One crack in his shell pretty-much sealed Victor’s fate.

So the poor crustacean in The Day of the Jackal was unceremoniously killed for the sake of a shot…and not even credited in the end titles as compensation for his sacrifice. I’ve seen the film at least a dozen times, but only now did I notice this unnecessary act of animal cruelty. 

"Sure, I'll be in your movie. What do I gotta do?"
I know some of you reading this are thinking, It’s just an oversized bug, so who cares? And I get it. This lobster’s untimely demise isn’t as reprehensible as the ghastly animal torture committed in Cannibal Holocaust, but I’ve developed a lot of animal empathy over the years. I’m one of those guys who could never bring himself to choose a live crustacean from a restaurant's tank. As much as I love lobster, I can’t single one out for execution, just like I’d never want to look a trusting cow in the eye before he’s turned into sirloin. No, this guy prefers to live in denial and assume all his meat simply comes from Safeway.

As much as I love movies, they aren’t worth anyone dying for, even animals (including oversized bugs). So when a live snake is decapitated in Friday the 13th, I’m thinking “Fuck you, Sean Cunningham! You didn’t need to do that!” When rats are unceremoniously killed in First Blood, I’m thinking “Fuck you, Sly! You didn’t need to do that, either!” And don’t get me started on Michael Cimino’s decision to blow up a horse in Heaven’s Gate. None of those critters asked to be actors.

"Uh...I think I just broke this."
But unlike snakes, rats and horses, lobsters are pretty tasty. Maybe the cast & crew of The Day of the Jackal celebrated wrapping that death scene with a fine seafood dinner. If that’s the case, dropping him on the floor is arguably less cruel than tossing him in a pot of boiling water. For my own piece of mind, I had to know. Director Fred Zimmerman and most of the cast are now dead, but as of this writing, the film’s star, Edward Fox is still kicking around, so I gave him a call.* The conversation didn’t go as I hoped…

“Hello?” replied a groggy voice on the other end of the line.

“Mr. Fox?” I greeted formally. “Is this Edward Fox, the legendary Jackal?”

“Uh…wait, who the hell is this?”

“This is Dave. I just watched The Day of the Jackal again and have a question about -”

“Dave? You again? Jesus Christ, I thought I blocked you. You know what time it is?”

“Sure, it’s 7:30.”

“Well, it’s 4:30 in London! 4:30 AM! And for the last time, I don’t know the Jackal’s astrological sign. Now piss off!”

“Sir, just one more question. It’s really important.”

There was a slight pause, followed by an exasperated sigh. “Fine.”

“Was the lobster eaten?”

Another pause. “Lobster? What lobster? What the hell are you talking about?”

“You know, the one you guys killed for that scene in the guy’s apartment. Did you eat it afterwards?”

“Jesus Christ, Dave, that was 50 fucking years ago! How the hell should I know? Who cares, anyway?”

“Well, I would think you’d care, since it dropped The Day of the Jackal down to 21st on my Top 100 list. I can’t stand animal cruelty, but if the lobster was at-least eaten afterwards, he wouldn't have died for nothing. I might even consider moving your movie back into the top 10.”

Another sigh. “You have a lot of spare time on your hands, don't you?”

I continued. “You know, Ed, The Day of the Jackal isn’t on all that many all-time lists. Not AFI’s list, Sight & Sound’s list…but it’s on mine. I would think you’d want to make sure it stays there.”

“Oh, gee. Dave’s list. What an honor.” I detected a bit of sarcasm in his voice. “Look, you maladjusted wanker. It’s the middle of the night, and don’t remember a goddamn thing about a movie I made decades ago. But if it helps…maybe it was a stunt lobster!

With that, he hung up. I considered calling him back, but think I learned what I needed to know. The Day of the Jackal remains a tension-filled masterpiece with a chilling performance by the great-but-grumpy Edward Fox. But because of a harrowing scene of abject animal cruelty, this seafood snuff film no longer ranks in my top 10 (though it’ll probably return there once I’ve gotten over it).

* No, I did not call Mr. Fox.

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