Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 7, 2014
Fred Zinnemann had a long and varied career (including the classic From Here to Eternity, airing today on TCM, on the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor) but it was near the end of his career, with his third to last film, The Day of the Jackal, that he had one of his biggest box office hits ever. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do it when he first got the offer but the more he thought about it, the more he was intrigued. Here was a suspense thriller in which the entire plot revolves around a mission that the audience, or at least the historically/culturally aware audience, knows will ultimately fail. After all, the mission is to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Three years before the movie was made, de Gaulle died from a ruptured blood vessel in his home. He was not assassinated. So anyone going into the movie would know that the Jackal (Edward Fox), the assassin followed by the movie as he moves closer and closer to de Gaulle, doesn’t succeed. That leaves the question, where’s the suspense? To create suspense from a situation with a known outcome was something Zinnemann couldn’t resist and unlike the Jackal, he succeeded completely. The Day of the Jackal is a great suspense thriller, even though we know how it ends.
But, of course, we don’t know how it ends and that’s the point. We know only that the Jackal does not assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Why does he not assassinate him? Stopped by the police? Killed by someone else before his mission could be completed? A crisis of conscience in which he changes his mind? We don’t know. We know he doesn’t succeed in his mission but we don’t know the details and it’s in the details that lies the suspense. As the Jackal is pursued by Police Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), the suspense becomes all about the hows and the whens: How will Lebel stop him and when?
When we know the general details about how a movie will end, it’s different than knowing a twist. For instance, at the start of Double Indemnity, it’s clear that things have gone drastically wrong for Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) but we don’t know how or why? As we learn more of the plot, that Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to take out a life insurance policy on her husband without him knowing about it and wants Neff to help, we can deduce that Neff does indeed get wrapped up in a murder for insurance money scheme but we still don’t know how it ends. We don’t know all the details that will come to light that lead to the moment when Neff stumbles into his office late at night, clearly injured with a gunshot wound, and starts recording his final confession. And that’s the suspense! How does it come to be that Neff ends up here, shot, speaking into this Dictaphone? Flashbacks often heighten suspense by showing the viewer an enticing piece of the finale and then forcing the viewer to wait the length of the movie to find out how it came to be.
Billy Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity, pulled off the same trick, only more extremely, with Sunset Boulevard. When that one starts, the hero of the movie isn’t just injured, he’s dead. Clearly there will be no suspense about whether or not Joe Gillis (William Holden) makes it to the end of the movie alive but for everyone seeing that opening shot and then the first few scenes of the movie, and not knowing the story as most of us now do, the intrigue is undeniable: How does this down on his luck writer who’s just met this aging movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), end up dead in the pool? In neither case, Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard, is the bookending necessary. Both could have easily started their tales at the beginning without flashbacks but something tells me they wouldn’t have been as good. Knowing a key element of the story’s conclusion helps drive the suspense of the movie on the whole.
Movies using historical backdrops often do so to exploit the knowledge the public has of the actual events that they will bring to the story. Everyone seeing either the 1953 Titanic or the 1997 Titanic knows the story ends with the ship sinking but the details of what happens with the two central couples in both; Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively; remain unknown until the very end. Actually, the 1997 version uses flashback as well so we do know that at least one of the characters gets off alive but we don’t know how. In From Here to Eternity, mentioned at the top of this post, we know the attack on Pearl Harbor will happen and we know how it will turn out for the Americans stationed there, but we don’t know the effect it will have on the individual characters in the story. In Apollo 13, we know every aspect of the story, even the outcome for the characters involved. Still, we don’t know the details of the minute by minute ordeal, how they dealt with it and each other, and what tensions existed on the ground. To take it out to the logical limit, any biopic, such as Patton or Lincoln, gives us nothing we can’t factually look up before seeing the movie. So why see it? Why bother if I know how Patton’s life turned out? Why bother if I know the 13th Amendment was ratified? Because the details, the journey, the interactions are the story and the suspense.
Many viewers dislike spoilers (although some actively seek them out, go figure) but a skilled storyteller can often pull the audience in by giving away a little bit of the ending first or, in the case of historical biographies, by counting on the viewer knowing the story and wondering A, what will be included and B, how will it be portrayed. Whether it’s a character we know will die (from Citizen Kane to, er, Love Story), one we know won’t (Day of the Jackal) or one we know won’t along with one we know will (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence), movies have a way of intriguing us even while giving us the goods at the start of the story. That is, as long as they tell the story well. Of course, you probably saw that coming. Thanks for reading the details.
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