I love spy thrillers. But what I don’t like is when directors think they need to put an excess amount of action in order to make what the spy is doing more thrilling. What and how they are doing it should be enough tense drama for me to be hooked. There have been quite a few good spy thrillers recently that take pride in the actions themselves instead of relying on super long car chases and lots of explosions. Most of the filmmakers who have made these beautifully understated films sight cold seventies thrillers as their inspiration. One that comes up again and again (and for good reason) is The Day of the Jackal.
The Day of the Jackal is not really a spy thriller. It is a variation on that topic in that we watch a hit man prepare to take down the president of France. The Jackal of the film’s title is an anonymous man who goes through the various steps to help a fringe group gain control of the country. He has an old man make a beautifully minimalist gun, he prepares passports and disguises, he plots his route and he goes through various obstacles with incredible ease. The man who plays the Jackal is a cool and exacting blonde haired tall drink of water. In contrast we see a weary old man try his hardest to catch him. Until the very end, his main work is waiting in an office for someone to call or for the pieces to make sense. He doesn’t hoof it around Paris or beat people up for answers. Instead he delivers his hunches and his facts to a series of long board meetings.
What I love about this film is the subtle build of tension. The detective is always incredibly close to finding this man and yet he misses him every single time. The Jackal seems to be one step ahead of him each and every time. But the Jackal is not above making mistakes (or were they?), he sleeps with a woman in a random hotel, he crashes his car after he painstakingly painted his car a new color and he is not afraid of killing in order to cover his tracks. But no matter what he never cracks. He never shows any emotions. He is the ultimate professional. In contrast the detective looks like he will break down any moment from lack of time off. There is an unwelcome feeling of sadness in every word he utters. Although you don’t get to know the characters outside of the narrative, all you need to learn about their characters are what is present on the screen. There doesn’t need to be any back story, any context. The tension is inherent in their actions alone. This is what makes this movie so great.