John Frankenheimer’s biggest production since Grand Prix turns the touchy subject of international terrorism into a frightening, outlandish story of a plot to kill thousands of spectators during one of America’s defining rituals, the Super Bowl. Black September operative Marthe Keller seduces disturbed Viet vet Bruce Dern into perpetrating the crime; Israeli agent Robert Shaw races to stop them. The super-crime is both outrageous and credible — making the show seem very modern, even prophetic. True to form, Frankenheimer filmed much of the movie’s final 40-minute suspense sequence during a real Super Bowl game.
Viavision [Imprint] 34
1977 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 143 min. / Street Date February 23, 2021 / Available from Viavision / 34.95 au
Starring: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Bekim Fehmiu, Fritz Weaver, Steven Keats, Michael V. Gazzo, William Daniels, Walter Gotell.
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
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
The audience I saw Black Sunday with was held in thrall by John Frankenheimer’s superior filmmaking skills for over two hours and twenty minutes! Unfortunately, it wasn’t over yet. Fifteen additional minutes at the climax almost ruin what has gone before.
Some subjects were once considered too serious and important to trivialize. The terrorists of Black Sunday are identified as members of Black September, the organization responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre of 1972. Thomas Harris, the author of The Silence of the Lambs, assembles a yarn that has an awful parallel with 9-11. The mass murder atrocity planned by the terrorists is quite involved and highly unlikely, but admittedly possible. Who in 1977 would have thought that a similar devastating blow against the U.S. could be accomplished far, far more easily?
Let’s make a thriller about real international terrorism, but keep it non-political!
John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday threads the needle of this challenge, balancing fair reportage with nail-biting thrills. Robert Shaw does battle with Marthe Keller and Bruce Dern in a skillfully constructed and lavishly produced terrorism thriller. We really like the good parts of this movie, so well directed by John Frankenheimer, years after his stylish achievement in the modern classic The Manchurian Candidate. A vicious murder in an elevator now reminds us of Hannibal Lecter’s ruthlessness in the feature version of Silence of the Lambs.
Harris’ fictional story posits a political mass murder plot against America at large. Israeli agent Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) wipes out a nest of Palestinian plotters, and soon has reason to regret sparing the life of German-Palestinian operative Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller). She and fellow Black September operative Mohammed Fasil (Bekim Fehmiu) have hatched an outrageously grandiose but technically feasible plot to murder 80,000 Super Bowl spectators. The lynchpin of their plan is Captain Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), an unstable Vietnam Vet who happens to be one of the pilots of the Goodyear Blimp.
Most of Black Sunday is a superior thriller produced on a grand scale. The often misused Robert Shaw is fine as an self-doubting aging patriot-assassin, the only man capable of stopping the massacre. Superproducer Robert Evans got only the best, starting with the cameraman from Chinatown. The three hot writers include Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), Ivan Moffat (Giant) and Kenneth Ross (The Day of the Jackal). The clever main action is the hijacking of a Goodyear Blimp, to be used as murder weapon. The Palestinian plotters’ inside man is a Goodyear pilot who 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 extremely credible as the embittered serviceman, seduced and manipulated by superspy Marthe Keller.
Marthe Keller is excellent in a difficult role, fleshing out a serious character dedicated to political revenge. Her Dahlia Iyad is on a suicide mission and must work hard to keep her emotions in control. Thousands of movies and TV shows tell us that characters are highly trained killing machines, yadda yadda; in this film both Marthe Keller and Robert Shaw convince as ice-cold assassins well versed in violence. Black Sunday is as good as action-conspiracy pictures get, right up to its final scene.
“What exactly is this ‘Super Bowl?'”
Robert Shaw’s Major Kabakov is given an interesting streak of self-doubt. He fears that he’s slipping, that the terrorists will win because he’s not on top of his game. The Major has a touchy relationship with his aide Robert Moshevsky (Steven Keats of The Friends of Eddie Coyle), a much younger man who gets too much satisfaction from threatening people. Kabakov is more detached, professional. To shoot down the blimp he commandeers a construction helicopter the way you or I might hail a taxi. “We’re going to kill the pilot!” he announces, sounding just like his murderous crook Mister Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
Kabakov’s ‘Felix Leiter’ aide is FBI agent Corley, played by Fritz Weaver. In perhaps his only action-oriented role, Weaver steps up as a solid warrior in the final barrage of violent combat. As such the actor thoroughly atones for ‘letting the team down’ back in Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, where he played a neurotic SAC General. William Daniels has a brief scene as an ineffectual Veteran’s Administration psychologist. Bekim Fehmiu (The Adventurers) is Dahlia’s supportive Black September colleague, and Walter Brooke (The Graduate) leads the expected group of intelligence watchdogs in conference scenes.
Frankenheimer said that he wanted to make a thriller without an overt political statement, which with this subject matter would seem impossible. Shaw’s Major Kabakov says out loud that he doesn’t think he’s accomplished anything in a long career of dirty work for Israel, yet we remain firmly on his side. Frankenheimer makes a special point of disassociating the Arab world at large from terrorism, by inventing a scene in which an Egyptian diplomat (Walter Gotell) gives Kabakov some needed information.
The villains are efficiently sketched individuals. Dahlia Iyad and Mohammed Fasil feel completely justified striking back against Western violence and oppression, in the belief that mass murder will aid their cause. With Dahlia it’s also a case of personal vengeance. A Japanese ship’s captain (Clyde Kusatsu) and a Turkish importer (Michael V. Gazzo) are both shifty ‘foreigners’ that enable terrorism for profit. We judge the attackers by the company they keep.
In 1977 Bruce Dern was one of the most unappreciated actors in Hollywood. His most successful roles had all been as disturbed individuals and outright psychos — everybody knew him as the creep that shoots John Wayne in The Cowboys. His presence anchors iffy movies like Silent Running. He’s truly creative and special in the brilliant Smile and he really ought to have won something for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Dern accepted yet another psycho part in Black Sunday because it was so well written. One year later, he was back playing a much more stereotyped military psycho for Coming Home, foaming at the mouth and threatening Jane Fonda with a rifle.
Captain Lander is genuinely scary. He fights back tears, shouting that he’s committing mass murder so his children will remember him. Even Dahlia is intimidated when Lander rhapsodizes about the thousands of metal darts in his homemade anti-personnel bomb. Lander and Dahlia’s test in an old desert hangar leaves a perfect pattern of holes in a wall of sheet metal, convincing us that his bomb could kill 80,000 Super Bowl attendees. The depressingly plausible dart idea may have been inspired by events in the First World War: German Zeppelins experimented with air-drops of large quantities of ‘flechette’ darts, to kill and maim Londoners at random. The desert demonstration fully prepares us for director Frankenheimer’s final action set piece, which stretches out for almost 45 minutes.
How to stumble at the finish line…
The non-stop action at the Super Bowl sees Robert Shaw trying desperately to prevent an unthinkable massacre. Director Frankenheimer’s noted TV background comes into play when Shaw invades a network broadcast control truck to gain key information. One impressive single-take master shot begins with a telephoto pan on Marthe Keller’s station wagon, zooms back half a mile to show the entire stadium and the game in progress, and then zooms down to the field to show Robert Shaw nervously pacing on the sidelines. Frankenheimer makes Shaw sprint through crowds perhaps one too many times, stressing the ‘you are there’ factor to the limit.
(Big Spoilers this paragraph.)
By intercutting his super-crime fiction with the ultra-real football game, Frankenheimer creates a disturbing, very modern tension: many of the worst things that happen in the world today are viewable on nightly TV, presented almost the same as in a fiction film. But this is where the storyline falters and Frankenheimer loses control. He stretches the suspense too far — after the ‘villains’ on the stolen airship are eliminated, what’s left is a mechanical save-the-day situation familiar from a hundred cartoonish action fantasies.
All of a sudden, the realism is replaced by comic book action. Our hero swings down a cable like Batman, or Roger Moore’s cartoonish 007. Is it possible for a helicopter to tow a blimp, against the power of the blimp’s motors? This level of escapist adventurism reminds us of juvenile toy-play entertainment, like TV’s Thunderbirds.
The preview audience I saw Black Sunday with laughed several times. The first time was at the sight of the blimp approaching the edge of the stadium. Instead of looming up threateningly as it does in the ad art, it limps forward like a lost toy balloon. What is there about a blimp that on film is so harmless-looking?
Frankenheimer’s grand finale is also let down by uneven special visual effects. The on-location real aerial footage is sensational, as are the front projection process shots showing Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern aloft. But the editors run out of wide action shots to cut with. In 1977 there was no convincing, realistic visual effects solution to show a blimp crashing into a football stadium filled with screaming fans. The blimp knocks down a light stanchion (which by itself should have killed a number of spectators) and simply drifts down to the field for awhile. We only see brief glimpses of the blimp in relation to the stadium. The one full composite tries hard but is barely a second long — the blimp appears to be completely rotoscoped into the scene. ↑ An optical zoom is added as a distraction. The entire sequence ends up an effects cheat, that goes against Frankenheimer’s no-compromise visuals elsewhere in his movie.
Frankenheimer’s only solution is to end the film as quickly as possible. Instead of a clear view of the super-bomb exploding, we’re given a pitiful shot of what looks like handfuls of gravel hitting the surf at Miami Beach… more derisive audience laughter. The last thing we see is Kabakov still dangling at the end of the cable, being whisked away at a hundred miles an hour. It’s as if Robert Shaw were too embarrassed to show his face.
This is what happens when you prime the audience for a terrible and bloody disaster, and then don’t deliver on the promise. Admittedly, I can’t think of a good fix — the terrorists can’t be allowed to succeed, but audiences demand some kind of spectacular action. The peek-a-boo killer blimp doesn’t suffice.
My criticism here is probably too harsh. The finale isn’t that bad, and Black Sunday’s overall thriller grade remains high overall. I see it again every few years, and I still appreciate John Frankenheimer’s beautifully laid-out scenes, camera moves and editing patterns. This is quality filmmaking, even if its ending doesn’t maintain the same level of brilliance.
→ I know of only one movie that solved this problem, and it’s a light thriller — Black Sunday couldn’t have followed its example. In the James Bond movie Goldfinger shows what looks like a horrible terrorist massacre, and then adroitly walks its way back from the boundary of unforgivable bad taste. The criminal Auric Goldfinger sets out to murder thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people, just to provide a clean getaway for his Fort Knox heist. We think we’re seeing thousands of men, women and children murdered by nerve gas. The surprise is that they’re only faking. It’s all a ruse to make the bad guys think they’ve succeeded. But Goldfinger‘s audience has already had their cake (sadistic thrills) and eaten it too (no consequences and no guilt: I’m not a sadist).
I’m want to re-print here a really good letter from CineSavant correspondent “B”, written back in 2003. He tells his entire story of encountering Black Sunday in a pre-release screening at Dallas’ USA Film Festival in 1977. “B” had a different experience than I did, and even interacted with the director John Frankenheimer:
Dear Glenn: 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 editor 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.
John Frankenheimer was in attendance and, as shaky memory serves, here things got interesting. During the Q&A, someone in the audience brought up Universal’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. (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 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. The atmosphere in the press conference immediately after the Q&A was intense and very contentious. It was clear from the questions from most of the critics and reporters in attendance that they disapproved of Frankenheimer’s behavior, and he 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. Frankenheimer spoke with great affection for Alonzo, and 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 cemented his reputation as a guy who specialized in, well, psychos. 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? — “B”
Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of Black Sunday is a very good encoding of this big-scale, handsomely directed thriller. The HD scan might not be new, but the only image flaws I see are in the optical title sequence and some of the special effects. It plays extremely well on a large monitor, and John Williams’ expert suspense score fits it like a glove. Frankenheimer subordinates everything to the storytelling, even the music.
Stephen Prince’s feature commentary emphasizes Marthe Keller’s key part in the film and explains things such as the Beirut opening, that was actually filmed in Morocco. The commentary is a tight reading of the directorial choices of director Frankenheimer, even if it describes a lot of the action we see. He also thinks that Frankenheimer’s suspense falters at the finish.
Daniel Schweiger’s ten-minute featurette covers John Williams’ only score for director Frankenheimer; Stephen Armstrong tosses around a lot of fast opinions about the director’s career, especially the his tough years in decline. Both featurettes are neatly assembled by Daniel Griffith.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Very Good
Supplements: New audio commentary by Stephen Prince, new featurette about John Williams’ score, with music historian Daniel Schweiger; new featurette on John Frankenheimer with Stephen Armstrong; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 8, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson