Though not without its car crashes and incidental killings, "The Day of the Jackal" is shot with the same neutrality displayed by its titular assassin, whether he's lifting passports from hapless Danish teachers or funneling hair dye into Old Spice bottles. For all its cold-blooded murder, the most violent image in the film is a bursting watermelon, a taste of the Jackal's plans for the French President's head.
A vain attempt on Charles de Gaulle's life by moped-riding assassins opens Fred Zinnemann's intriguing 1973 adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth thriller. "August 1962 was a stormy time for France..." begins a refined voice-over. The film is inhabited solely by mannered gentlemen (contract killers, gendarmes, counterfeiters, and the like), with the notable exception of the British Chief of Police, who is clearly from Birmingham.
This is by no means a grievance. One cannot help but be heartened by the erudition of these otherwise unscrupulous criminals when, for example, a gunsmith asks Edward Fox (the eponymous Jackal), "Will the gentleman be moving?" The gentleman in question is the Jackal's half million-dollar target.
Zinnemann's tale of an extremist faction's plot to kill the celebrated French leader and the authorities' efforts to capture the mercenary assassin hired for the job achieves a dignified tone and compelling pace seldom seen in latter-day thrillers.
"The Day of the Jackal" is on BBC1 at 11.35pm, Friday 9th February 2001.