Fred Zinnemann’s films received 66 Oscar nominations and were awarded 26 statues, he personally won best director twice for A Man For All Seasons (1967) and From Here To Eternity (1954), won another two for short subject films he directed, and also received the D.W. Griffith award for lifetime achievement. He worked successfully across many genres with The Sundowners (1960), The Nun’s Story (1959), Oklahoma! (1955), and High Noon (1952), also among his credits, and was particularly gifted working with actors, who netted 19 of those nominations; he also directed a number of future stars in their screen debuts. Although sometimes overlooked among the all time greats who came up in the studio system, his accomplishments and innovations certainly warrant inclusion. Born in Poland in 1907 to a Jewish family, he grew up in Vienna and earned a law degree in 1927, before an interest in filmmaking led him to work in Paris and Berlin, with the likes of Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak. He moved to the United States with his parent’s permission to escape the increasingly difficult political climate in Europe and to seek better opportunities in Hollywood, landing in New York on the day of the stock market crash, Oct. 24, 1929. He would find out after the War that both his parents were killed in the Holocaust. He directed his first feature upon the recommendation of a friend, The Wave (1936), a Mexican government cultural production to promote the arts, and after a series of short films began his career under contract for MGM in 1942. He began with a couple of fairly straightforward studio B-productions, and had his creative breakthroughs with The Seventh Cross (1944) and The Search (1948), which were sandwiched around another couple of B-pictures, and began a long career that showed a distinct preoccupation with principled individuals struggling to maintain their honor and dignity while standing up for their beliefs in the face of indifference and strong opposition. Often dismissed or neglected by auteurist critics for his films being impersonal, his preoccupation and constant reworking of the same themes and humanist concerns belie this criticism, and along with his excellent work with actors, impeccable technical skill, and innovations in bringing a documentary like realism to the artificiality of studio productions, make him a major figure. Zinnemann retired from filmmaking after the hostile critical reception of Five Days One Summer (1982) and he died in 1997.
The Day Of The Jackal (1973) is one of my all time favorite films, and I think the greatest thriller ever made, adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s excellent novel of the same name, with a screenplay by Kenneth Ross. In 1962, a group of French army veterans who feel betrayed by De Gaulle’s withdrawal from Algeria, plot and fail to assassinate De Gaulle. They are forced into hiding and realize their organization is both riddled with informers and incapable of the task, and the leaders decide among themselves to hire an outside professional for the job, settling on an unnamed Englishman (Edward Fox, absolutely brilliant, a career best) who gives himself the codename Jackal after agreeing to take the job. Fox is so good in the scene of their meeting in a hotel in Vienna, his mix of confidence, professionalism, and humor selling the men on his skills, as he first cracks a joke about De Gaulle being an available target because his ego guarantees he will keep making public appearances, and then after the men balk at his hefty fee, casually saying, well, no problem, just use your network, rob some banks. Which they proceed to do in a series of bold daylight heists of banks, jewelry stores, and armored trucks, and make the deposit to Tha Jackal’s Swiss account.
Zinnemann said that he enjoyed the challenges of creating a suspenseful film when the outcome was already known, (De Gaulle is not assassinated), and he wildly succeeds. The greatest pleasure of this film is watching a careful, skilled professional organize and plan his work with a meticulous attention to detail, and I’m always amazed when I rewatch the film how I find myself rooting for his success despite his murderous intent. The Jackal has an equally skilled adversary and rooting interest though in the character of Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), the French detective assigned by the government to stop him. After the series of robberies, the government realizes a new plot is in motion, but following The Jackal’s advice the leaders have sequestered themselves in Rome under heavy security and kept the plotters to a minimum to avoid leaks. Because De Gaulle refuses enhanced security and insists the ministers keep the plot and their counter security precautions from the public, Lebel must work in secret with only their back channel assistance and a single subordinate, Caron (Derek Jacobi) to help him. There is as much pleasure in watching Lebel attack a seemingly impossible problem, discovering the assassin, as there is in watching The Jackal prepare for his seemingly impossible mission, killing De Gaulle.
When I first saw this film as a kid, a special 3 hour Saturday network movie event back when they still did that sort of thing, I remember being struck by how the film looked different than other movies. I knew nothing about filmmaking then of course, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was, or articulate it, but it seemed so real, not glossy and artificial the way other films were, and that made it more exciting. One of Zinnemann’s great innovations and contributions to filmmaking that he incorporated from the start of his career was his insistence on location shooting whenever possible and the use of non professional extras to bring a documentary like realism to his films and break down the artificiality, though he borrowed this from the Italian neo-realists, these techniques were new to Hollywood at the time and were subsequently adopted by many other filmmakers. In Jackal, he filmed across Europe, in numerous precise locations in London, Vienna, Genoa, Rome, Paris, and did so in a newsreel style amidst non professionals that has an amazing fly on the wall texture that is fully immersive and propels the story forward.
The Jackal procures three fake identities; a legitimate British passport lifted from a dead child’s name with his own picture, a Danish passport stolen from a similar looking man at Heathrow, and that of a French war veteran with the precise documents forged by an Englishman in Genoa who makes the mistake of attempting to extort a higher fee when he senses the Jackal’s overt caution and finds himself unceremoniously killed. The coolest scenes of his preparation are the meetings with The Gunsmith (Cyril Cusack) as they mutually admire each other’s work; The Jackal’s clever design that incorporates a sniper rifle into a crutch, and The Gunsmith’s morally ambivalent (“will it be a headshot or a chest shot?”) and perfect execution of same, along with the accompanying mercury tipped exploding rounds. When the Jackal heads into the countryside and dials in the range and scope of the weapon with regular rounds on a watermelon, before blowing it to pieces with a final exploding round, the stakes are thrillingly clear. The Jackal then hides the weapon in the pipes on the underside of his car, and drives into France under the British passport.
Lebel is also hard at work with his intellectual determination, and a detective’s informed hunch about the killer’s origin, eventually leading to Scotland Yard discovering a recently issued passport in a dead child’s name, after lots of pre-digital man hours of extensive file combing, and they narrowly miss their man at the border crossing. The Jackal has a single telephone number in Paris to contact for information with the plotters, and the widow of the initial executed assassin has installed herself as a mistress to a French minister to provide them with intel. She has relayed to this intermediary that the cover is blown, and having already said he will quit if this occurs, he gets on the road, and then hesitates as the road branches, left, to Paris, right, back to Italy. The challenge and preparation and second half of his fee perhaps overwhelming his better judgement and caution, he takes the left.
The Jackal’s endgame to Paris after his cover is blown is a series of incredibly deft and exciting moves and scenes, as he ruthlessly uses and discards a rich, lonely wife, assuming the Danish identity afterwards, and then travels to Paris where he casually picks up a man in a Turkish bath to avoid hotels, and gives him the same fate. He always stays just ahead of the police through his skill and determination rather than luck or happenstance, though now that it has become a straightforward manhunt for a murderer, the police have issued a photograph, and feel confident they can catch him. He leaves the man’s apartment disguised as an elderly, one-legged French war veteran and moves into the Place du 18 Juin 1940 where he has previously procured access to a flat overlooking the grandstand where De Gaulle will be giving out medals in commemoration of the French resistance, which was actually filmed during a real military parade for extra verisimilitude. He then calmly dispatches the landlady and takes position on the top floor and assembles his rifle. Meanwhile Lebel, worriedly making rounds, discovers that a gendarme has allowed a veteran with proper identity papers into the cordon and as Lebel spies a fifth floor window opened to the Place, he races into the building with the gendarme and ascends the stairs. The final confrontation, over in seconds of screen time, has such great tension that it feels much longer, as the Jackal having shot first the gendarme coming through the door, calmy reloads his rifle as Lebel scrambles across the floor to recover the dead man’s weapon, and succeeds in firing the fatal rounds that have such force the Jackal is propelled backwards up into the wall. The film ends with Lebel watching a coffin lowered into an unmarked grave, the assassin’s identity still a mystery, a final act of quiet ambiguity that is also a hallmark of Zinnemann’s films. I love this movie, its 143 minutes always fly by, it’s a perfect film with so many complex interdependent parts that Zinnemann orchestrates into a sublime whole. (I have never and would never watch the 1997 abomination starring Bruce Willis, all copies should be destroyed, and in a reference for S-11 The X-Files watchers, it should be purged from collective memory by Dr. They to live on only as an isolated example of the Mandela effect.)
The oddest thing about the film Julia (1977) is that it is called Julia, rather than Lillian, as it contains very little Julia, despite Vanessa Redgrave winning a best supporting actress Oscar for the title role. Though to my eyes a much poorer film than Jackal, it received 11 nominations, including Zinnemann, with additional wins for best supporting actor Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett, and Alvin Sargent for best adapted screenplay. I know I saw the film back in the day, and it is very much a prestige picture, before that term was really popularized, and also total Oscar bait, and I can only remember being pretty bored by it, but had always meant to give it a proper adult rewatch. The film is based on a story by Lillian Hellman, contained in her book Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), that describes her friendship with Julia, a wealthy heiress and ardent anti-fascist who is killed by the Nazis. Hellman claimed the material was autobiographical, but Zinnemann and contemporary authors such as Mary McCarthy, whom Hellman sued for defamation, insisted that it was entirely fictional, abstracted from events in others’ lives and presented by Hellman as her own experiences, as Zinnemann said, “She would portray herself in situations that were not true. An extremely talented, brilliant writer, but she was a phony character, I’m sorry to say. My relations with her were very guarded and ended in pure hatred.” In addition, Vanessa Redgrave’s strident advocacy of Palestinian causes while also portraying an anti-fascist crusader, which she vocalized during her acceptance speech in the face of protests of her nomination by the Jewish Defense League, among others, added another layer of outrage and controversy to the film.
Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda, a best actress nominee) lives in an isolated beach house with her lover and mentor, author Dashiell Hammett, while she struggles to produce the play that would be her breakthrough, The Children’s Hour (1934). A series of rather brief, abrupt, and disorganized flashbacks are intercut with these scenes and portray her relationship with Julia from childhood, where they are played by young actresses, up until college, where Julia attends Oxford to study medicine before moving to Vienna to fight fascism, and Lillian moves to the United States to become a writer. As Julia struggles to write, Hammett sends her to Paris to work and she attempts to contact Julia, who is deep into resistance against the Nazis and proves difficult to locate. Julia is grievously wounded fighting fascists attacking Jews at a university and somehow gets word to Julia, who winds up bedside in Vienna looking adoringly at her friend. That is until she wakes up in a chair and the bed is empty, mattresses folded, Julia gone, her very existence denied. Such an odd scene, I mean, no one could possibly sleep in a chair right next to the bed and remain unconscious through all trace of a person being removed, and the bed being broken down and folded up, why not have her arrive from the hotel and see the same sight? It’s just odd.
After fruitless attempts to locate Julia, Hellman returns to New York and completes her play. She is now feted and the toast of Broadway, hobnobbing with her wealthy pals Alan (Hal Holbrook) and Anne Marie (Meryl Streep, her feature film debut), among others, until she is invited to Moscow for a theater festival but first heads out to Paris with Hal and his wife Dottie for more celebration of her brilliance. While in Paris, she is contacted by an emissary of Julia, Johann (Maximilian Schell, another b/s/a nominee) and asked to route her trip to Moscow through Berlin, rather than Vienna, and in the process deliver money to contacts in Berlin to help smuggle Jews and other political prisoners out. She fretfully accepts the mission, she is Jewish after all, and the scenes of travel into Nazi Germany are reasonably tense and suspenseful, though she is surreptitiously helped along the way by several unknown confederates. Once in Berlin for a few hours stopover, she finally again meets Julia, the reunion brief and bittersweet. Before parting, Lillian is asked if she will raise Julia’s daughter, uh, um, Lilly, who is in hiding in Alsace, and she of course agrees. Alas, upon returning from Moscow, she finds out the Nazis have killed Julia, and despite searching, the child cannot be located. Cue wistful overwrought voice over, the end.
The film certainly touches on one of Zinnemann’s favorite themes, the individual fighting for what they believe in, and the period detail and set design and the location shoots are all typically excellent, but the film always seems a little bit off and underwritten. The central relationship never really convinces as a friendship, and Julia is in the film so briefly (another in the long, continuing series of inexplicable Oscar wins) that she remains a symbol of doomed idealism rather than an actual person. And beyond the hospital disappearing act, there are other odd scenes, in one, obnoxious Sammy (John Glover), who is Anne Marie’s brother, casually confesses to repeated incest with his underage sister and is smirkingly like, you get it, right, you and Julia were big old lesbians at boarding school, hardee har, Lillian then slaps the shit out of him, and it’s very WTF. Also, despite the tension of the courier sequence, Fonda plays it so weirdly, continually acting baffled by and ignoring the simplest of instructions, “put the hat on your head, set the box on the seat,” she needlessly and maddeningly endangers the mission to no apparent narrative purpose. Then there is the rushed and half-assed search for the missing child at the end, but enough, all in all, it’s a well made, but definitely not great movie, suitable for Zinnemann, Hellman, Hammett, or possibly Oscar winning film completists, but otherwise not essential viewing.
Well, after naming the films I planned to write about the past couple of weeks in an effort to motivate myself, and then changing directions and doing something else, clearly, there is no point in making plans, I’ll just end up doing whatever strikes my fancy anyway. Suffice to say, I’ve been kind of enjoying having my film watching options narrowed down to avoid the “what should I watch tonight” conundrum, and then writing them up, something will follow. Cheers.