Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
There's this great Warner's cartoon where a talent agent (Porky Pig, I believe) auditions a long string
of inept acts. In one of them, a daredevil blows himself up with dozens of sticks of dynamite, and
then as an angel, reacts to Porky's enthusiasm by saying his act has only one problem - he can only do
it once! John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday has an inverse of the same problem: once you show the
dynamite, you have to do it at least once ... In this skillfully constructed and lavishly
produced terrorism thriller, Robert Shaw does battle with Marthe Keller and Bruce Dern, but the
absurdity of the ending defuses the desired effect. This was one of
'The Kid Stays in the Picture' Robert Evans'
Ruthless Israeli agent Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) wipes out a nest of
Palestinian plotters, but regrets allowing German-Palestinian killer Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller)
to escape. She and Mohammed Fasil (Bekim Fehmiu) are working an outrageously grandiose but
technically feasible concept to kill 80,000 Super Bowl spectators, to 'send a message' to America.
The lynch pin of their plan is Captain Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), an unstable Viet Vet who
happens to be one of the pilots of the Goodyear Blimp.
Black Sunday did only moderately well in 1977. From an original source book by the man who wrote
The Silence of the Lambs, it generates suspense with an unbroken series of violent and tense
scenes ably directed by John Frankenheimer in straight action mode. Someone's plotting a mass
political murder in the U.S., and only one top Israeli operative can stop it. The often misused
Robert Shaw does a fine job with the self-doubting, aging patriot-assassin, overcoming his basic
Aryan-looking 'Red Grant' appearance.
Superproducer Robert Evans got only the best - the cameraman from Chinatown and three hot
writers including Adaptor for all Seasons Ernest Lehman, Ivan Moffat (Giant) and Kenneth
Ross (The Day of the Jackal). The clever concept has only one hitch: its own plot hook and
main selling point, the hijacking of a Goodyear blimp to be used as a mass murder weapon.
The farfetched story is much more potent today, two years after a rather similar crime scenario
masterminded by renegades with the same nationalist cause succeeded horribly in New York. A familiar
American flying machine is used as an unlikely weapon, in this case to carry a homemade but highly
effective anti-personnel bomb. Of course, the Arab murderers find that one of the Goodyear pilots just
happens to be a borderline psycho obsessed with a desire to strike back against the U.S., for perceived
wrongs by the Navy and his own wife. Bruce Dern is initially very credible as the embittered serviceman,
seduced and manipulated by superspy Marthe Keller.
Keller is better than I remembered her; in 1977 her supermodel looks seemed ill-chosen for
an agent who needed to be inconspicuous. Her masquerade as a nurse is pretty foolish, as is the
FBI's inability to find a woman who sticks out as plainly as Sophia Loren at a scrubwoman's
Up until act three, Black Sunday is a solid thriller. Robert Shaw has an interesting
streak of weakness; his flaw is that he's not ruthless enough, it seems. His clashes with the FBI
(a rather stodgy Fritz Weaver) are orchestrated to prove how foolish Americans are to underestimate Arab
fanatics. The movie even gets away with a scene that belongs in a Roger Moore Bond film: Shaw
negotiates with a comic-book Russian comisar (Walter Gotell) to show how Arab terrorism should be a common
bonding agent between East and West.
Black Sunday's lean approach to its political content seems fair enough. The terror
threat is real, whether one considers it rational retaliation or the work of fanatics.
The only quibble is the film's underlying 'us or them' polemic. Israel and America are presented as
resolutely sincere; Palestine is a criminal nation with allies in Libya and Vietnam. A Japanese ship's
captain and a Turkish trader, both sneaky 'foreigners' add color as enablers of mass murder. Terror
specialist Shaw is the only one with the expertise to recognize and eliminate the bad guys. 1
Unfortunately, Black Sunday falls apart toward the end. Audiences laughed at the spectacle
of the Goodyyear blimp limping into the Super Bowl like a lost toy balloon, instead of looming up
threateningly as it does in the ad art. There's something essentially harmless-looking about a blimp.
The movie suddenly degenerates into a comic book, as our hero swings down a cable like Batman to
tow the blimp away, and the Super Bowl crowd overreacts in panic after the airship topples one measly
light stanchion. I bet there were arguments in the cutting room over this one. 3
The barely-adequate effects in the big climax let down Robert Evans' elaborate production, that
successfully integrates the story's action into an actual Super Bowl game. But the real damage was done earlier,
by some laughable character developments. Bruce Dern is excellent at showing the initial quirks of
deranged blimp pilot Lander, but the script makes him totally freak out toward the end. The
melodramatics of films like Silent Running and Coming Home typed Dern as a neurotic nut
case, even though his instincts were always good. Also, the concept of the Vietnam Vet going
violently insane was already stale, with bloodbaths like Rolling Thunder making Dern's mania
seem cartoonish and more than disrespectful to real servicemen with
emotional problems. When Dern starts wearing his old uniforms and calling himself a hero, or flinches
uncontrollably at the sound of the National Anthem, audiences laughed.
What's really wrong is the linking of the Palestinian violence with the Vietnam trauma case. It may
be thematically convenient to have one of our own soldiers turned against us, but it creates a
confusion of affections. Black Sunday is 100% 'us or them' except when it comes to the very
sympathetic Bruce Dern character. At the end all we know is that we need superheroes like Robert
Shaw to save us.
Also, the film suffers from its own morbid premise. The audience is tantalized with thoughts of
a gory spectacle, but is paid off with a shot of what looks like handfuls of gravel hitting the
surf at Miami Beach. How to satisfyingly suggest thriller atrocities and yet avoid showing them has been a
problem of movies ever since Pearl White faced a lumber mill sawblade, and Black Sunday
stumbles when the blimp attack ("Oh no! It's a blimp!") turns out to be neither deadly nor
visually impressive. Day of the Jackal made its cops 'n robbers thrills so exciting that
we hardly missed the broken promise of a successful assassination. Black Sunday ends
like a doomsday movie where the atom bomb turns out to be a dud.
The only movie I've seen to propose a morbid scenario and fulfill it, while letting its audience
off the hook for wanting to see an atrocity is Goldfinger 2.
We think we're seeing thousands of men, women and children murdered by
nerve gas, and get to survey the grim aftermath. But, surprise! They're only faking. It's all
a ruse to make the bad guys think they've succeeded. If only our U.S. Intelligence community
was capable of a strategy 1/10th as sophisticated. But Goldfinger's audience has already
had their cake (sadistic thrills) and eaten it too (no guilt: I'm not a sadist).
Black Sunday is an exciting show that makes an interesting comparison to our present-day 'political'
thrillers. At least it has a realistic background. Its brand of grandiose political super-crime
has certainly come to pass, so it can be called prophetic as well.
Paramount's DVD of Black Sunday is a bare-bones disc given a good transfer. Frankenheimer's
spare direction includes lots of real Super Bowl footage at the end (and brief glimpses of a Jimmy
Carter lookalike) with real pro-footballers on the field. We're so used to commentaries on other
Frankenheimer films, that the late director is missed here. He always had something insightful to say.
The lack of Special Features again doesn't keep Paramount from calling things like subtitles Special.
Their generous offering of a 5.1 mix option may be a purchase factor for interested fans, however.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Sunday rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2003
1. At least it's more fair
than the extermination policy of Who Dares Wins (The Final Option) an English film
that practically foams at the mouth in anticipation of watching never-an-error commandos
wipe out political criminals with unrestrained glee. Black Sunday doesn't dismiss or mock the political
motivations behind political crimes.
2. Here I have to attest to my overhearing a busload of High School kids
on 9/11/01, reacting to the New York calamity as 'really cool', based on the sensational news videos
being played on television. It's like a movie, only better.
3. Not to get rowdy here, but frankly, but one reason I think they laughed was
because the blimp coming over the stadium
looked a lot like the 'giant tit' of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex
But Were Afraid To Ask.
4. A response from esteemed correspondent 'B':
Dear Glenn: Fine, incisive look at BLACK SUNDAY. I really like this film, and you
well described or touched on most of its many assets.
I first saw this at a pre-release screening at Dallas' USA Film
Festival. The showing went exceedingly well; the crowd was rapt from the
beginning. There were loud spontaneous choruses of gasps in the
appropriate places and much applause at the climax. Despite some miscues
in the last act, I found the final scenes literally thrilling;
Frankenheimer and Rolf brilliantly assembled the pieces, and ratcheted up
the suspense. The mediocre effects and clumsy blue screen work seemed
unimportant; the powerful compositions so tautly following each other
were overwhelming. At the end, I was tingling in a way that I only
occasionally experience after a film. I am not a confident prophet
regarding a film's commercial success, but I hadn't felt anything like
this since JAWS. I had had a similar response after seeing THE
GODFATHER, and later STAR WARS, ALIEN and, in a different way, E.T. -- I
believed the movie would go through the roof. If Paramount hadn't been
merely a part of a huge conglomerate, I would have looked into buying
stock in the company.
Frankenheimer was in attendance, and, as shaky memory serves, here
things got interesting. During the Q&A, someone in the audience brought
up U's recent TWO-MINUTE WARNING, asking whether the filmmaker thought
the sort of similarly themed film might have beaten the thunder of
SUNDAY in some way. The director abruptly lost it, and began a heated,
highly defensive tirade about the earlier picture -- and when the
audience member tried to make a comment, Frankenheimer turned on him.
I'd never seen a filmmaker (publicly) excoriate anyone, and I couldn't
believe he spoke so angrily to a guy who'd innocently asked a question.*
The questioner defended himself, and I think if only to spite, he
started to criticize the film. This fueled Frankenheimer's growing fury.
After another question, which the director barely addressed, the
moderator cut the discussion short. In the press conference immediately
after the Q&A, the atmosphere was intense and very contentious. It was
clear from the questions from most of the critics and reporters in
attendance that they disapproved of his behavior, and Frankenheimer
remained very annoyed with almost everyone. Certainly, the guy was
nervous -- Frankenheimer badly needed a hit at this point in his career,
and was clearly sweating out the remaining weeks before the picture's
opening. After the press conference, I somehow found myself reassuring
him that he'd made a very good movie -- a unique experience for me.
He made a few notable comments about the movie. He said that Ernest
Lehman's contribution to the script was cursory; Per Frankenheimer, the
famous writer had penned a basic screenplay that simply put the book on
paper. He said that Ivan Moffat had made possibly the most valuable
contributions. [In at least one print interview much later in his
career, the director praised Lehman's work on the film and gave him most
of the credit for the script. Go figure.] A major change in the film
from the novel, by the way, was that the Robert Shaw character survives.
In the book, Kabakov is killed when the blimp explodes; Frankenheimer
felt that his death was dramatically unnecessary. John Wiiliams was
hired to write the score even before the movie went into production. He
spoke with great affection for Alonzo -- he didn't say this, but I
believe the cameraman had earlier impressed him when stepped in for
James Wong Howe on THE HORSEMEN for a while after a combination of
illness (and maybe some reported conflicts with Frankenheimer) sidelined
the great cinematographer. It was evident, I think, that he felt that
Bruce Dern's performance was one of the best things in the movie -- he
remarked wryly that he was almost sorry that Dern was now a star; he
wished that he was still a character player so he could use him all the
I do believe that Dern's work in the picture is the best performance of
his career+, even though it really cemented his reputation as a guy who
specialized in, well, psychos. [He made a comment at the time that this
was one role of this type that was too good to turn down.] I regret that
much of his later work -- and roles -- has proved disappointing. I still
recall Jack Nicholson's comment reported in a 1974 Time cover story: he
phoned the actor and told him something like "Dernsie, it's you and me
and the guy on the hill" as the then top film actors. [The "guy on the
hill" was Brando.] Extravagant praise, but not completely unearned.
There's a little-noticed funny Dern moment in SUNDAY: while posing as a
dock worker around Clyde Kusatu's freighter, he whistles "Easy Come,
Easy Go" -- the John Green-Edward Heyman song that was used as the main
theme of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?
On an unrelated matter, I am amazed that Fox has apparently acquired --
and retitled -- George Pal's THE GREAT RUPERT for a special
Christmas-themed vidrelease. Can this be? I have little info about it; I
would guess that they've colorized this perfectly nice if minor item,
relatively little seen these days. [Jimmy Conlin's performance in the
movie is one of his most endearing.] Looking forward to
your review. Best, Always. -- 'B'
* A while after this, I did see a post-SORCERER William Friedkin behave
even more badly when he mistook a fan's comment for a critical remark.
+ The high school basketball coach in Nicholson's DRIVE, HE SAID, a
terrific picture-stealing turn as Tom Buchanan in GATSBY, Freeman Lowell
in SILENT RUNNING -- such a fine example of good work with a very
sketchy, potentially thankless part -- and his powerful work as a poorly
written but integral character in COMING HOME are his other really
strong performances. I feel that his acting in the important
confrontation scene with Fonda and Voight in HOME is particularly
outstanding; he is utterly believable as a trapped, lost man, betrayed
and out of options. It's dramatically necessary, but almost regrettable
that he points a rifle at the two while wearing a military uniform --
back in '78, anyway, it immediately and distractingly evoked his SUNDAY
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson