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Black Sunday

Black Sunday
Paramount Home Entertainment
1977 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 143 min. / Street Date October 14, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Bekim Fehmiu, Fritz Weaver, Steven Keats, Michael V. Gazzo, William Daniels, Walter Gotell
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Art Direction Walter Tyler
Film Editor Tom Rolf
Original Music John Williams
Written by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, Ivan Moffat from the novel by Thomas Harris
Produced by Robert Evans, Robert L. Rosen
Directed by John Frankenheimer

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' personal productions.


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 convention.

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
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 time.

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 performance.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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