It would have been easy for director Gillo Pontecorvo to create a pure work of propaganda in which the black hat French are seen oppressing the white hat FLN and the Algerian citizenry. On one level that story exists in the film, but what makes Algiers so brilliant is that Pontecorvo is even more interested in showing the mechanics and philosophy behind terrorist and counter-terrorist activities. We see how both sides scheme and strategize, and how success on both sides is mostly dependent on intellectual ability.
The even-handedness in Algiers is also seen in the fact that Pontecorvo does nothing to demonize the French. He shows their arrogance, brutality and casual racism, but he doesn't make it melodramatic. And in one memorable and terrifying sequence we witness the horror of terrorist bombings carried out by the FLN against French civilian targets. It would have been tempting to downplay French suffering, but the film faces it head on. Similarly, we see Algerians ruthlessly tortured and killed by the French, and yet the film stops short of sentimentalizing their suffering.
The best example of the objectivity in Algiers is the character of Colonel Mathieu, the leader of the French paratroopers who eventually crush (temporarily) the FLN in Algiers. Mathieu is presented as a cerebral professional who goes about his dirty business in the most efficient, effective way possible. He fully realizes his methods are brutal and that he's part of an irreversible historical trend (the end of colonialism), but he does what France expects of him. He's matched on the FLN side by a group of commanders who have to counter French firepower and manpower with cunning and an ability to mobilize the Arab population in mass protests. If there's a problem in this objective approach it's that Mathieu becomes the most compelling character in the film. He's played by Jean Martin with icy cool, and because of his strong performance it creates moments in the film when we're actually hoping for the French to win. Such is the power of charisma. And this is where the link to The Day of the Jackal comes.
Zinnemann's directing style in Jackal is more polished than Pontecorvo's, but he does give the film a documentary feel. We follow the Jackal (the code name for the assassin) as he methodically plans the assassination and goes about acquiring the items he needs to perform the deed. At the same time we see the efforts of the French police, led by the bloodhound-like Commissioner Lebel, as they use the most minor clues to track down the Jackal. Each step in the two separate processes is fascinating to watch, and as the two plot lines converge the tension keeps ratcheting up. Because of this documentary approach, the threat to de Gaulle seems very real even though we know he was never felled by a bullet.
|Jean Martin looking sharp as Col. Mathieu|
|Wolenski being tortured by the French secret service.|
Jackal is also a great-looking film that skips around various eye-catching European locations, all of them filmed in an understated but glossy style that adds some warmth to what is basically a very cold-blooded story. And keep an eye out for a freeze frame of a woman crossing a street that mirrors a freeze frame used in Algiers. Of the two films The Battle of Algiers is clearly the one that will always have a more prominent place in cinema history thanks to its masterful and innovative blend of agitprop and entertainment. Jackal doesn't offer innovation, but it has to rank as one the most well-made and exciting films of the 1970s,