“Edward Fox has charm,” announces the singer of the obscure Manchester punk band, Smack, on their bizarrely magnificent 1979 non-hit, Edward Fox (seriously, give it a listen). “Not the sticky transatlantic variety, nor the hammy continental strain,” he continues drily over a spiky guitar riff, “but rather a uniquely English charm of old houndstooth jackets, unobtrusive courtesy and a complete lack of condescension.”
On the subject of the original Jackal, who turns 80 today, who are we to disagree? It’s that glinting, congenial English charm, in fact, that makes Fox’s definitive role so startlingly compelling, and highly worth revisiting.
There’s something cornflakeish about The Day of the Jackal movie, as it happens – you may well have forgotten just how very good it is. The set-up – as conceived by Frederick Forsyth in his hit novel – is spectacularly simple, and has all the elements of a straight-ahead boy’s own caper: as Fox’s anonymous hitman plans the assassination of the French president, Charles de Gaulle, security forces attempt desperately to hunt him down. But it’s a far, far stranger – and more effective – proposition than that even suggests.
After all, de Gaulle managed to remain very much un-assasinated – which means it’s a story whose outcome we know from the start: the Jackal must fail in his mission. Instead, Fred Zinnemann, the director who’d previously made the Western nailbiter, High Noon, layers on the suspense with a clinical fascination in the Jackal’s process – including, of course, the creation of the weirdest, niftiest sniper rifle ever seen – contrasting his stealthy movements across Europe with the groaning, bureaucratic machinations of those on his tail. There’s barely even a soundtrack: it’s less a caper, more a documentary, as coldly effective as its protagionist.
But it’s also thoroughly intoxicating, and that’s largely because of Fox. We would say so, of course, but he’s surely cinema’s most stylish killer ever – and that includes the one with the license to kill. In his perfectly cut fawn suit, twill slacks and pressed shirts, matched with a procession of glorious cravats, he is the very essence of assured, officer-class English style. Bond is a mere contender by comparison – and the Jackal’s soft-top, white Aston Martin, whizzing across southern Europe, is quite the match for 007’s vehicles too.
As the Jackal, Edward Fox is perfectly inscrutable, fiendishly clever, but also likeable – it’s that poised English charm, of course. He’ll have you, without breaking a sweat or thinking twice, but you’d still quite like to buy him a drink.
The Day of the Jackal (1972):
Of all the moments in our favourite film, the one where Fox’s extraordinary, flat-pack sniper rifle is revealed is surely the most iconic. With all his customary cool, steady composure, he tests it out in the Italian countryside, making tiny adjustments with a screwdriver. Weird, and thoroughly riveting.