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Black Sunday ’77

by Glenn Erickson Mar 21, 2023

John Frankenheimer’s big-scale terrorism conspiracy tale benefits from the director’s no-nonsense attitude to action. Thomas Harris’ first novel spins on a ‘high concept’ gimmick that surely launched a studio bidding war: what if somebody blew up the entire Super Bowl, in mid-game? Robert Shaw, Steven Keats and Marthe Keller play well with the tense effort to detect and stop the attack, and favorite Bruce Dern steals the show with his career-best deranged villain — who is also the film’s most sympathetic character. This domestic disc release carries all-new extras.


Black Sunday ’77
Blu-ray
Arrow Video
1977 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 143 min. / Street Date March 28, 2023 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
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 Director: Walter Tyler
Costume Design: Ray Summers
Film Editor: Tom Rolf
Original Music: John Williams
Screenplay 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 producers of 1977’s Black Sunday must have been searching for a ‘high concept’ story hook to match the super-steroid great white shark of Spielberg’s Jaws: what Summer Thrill could top the idea of a blimp set to murder everyone attending the Super Bowl?  John Frankenheimer’s superior filmmaking skills keep us on the edge of our seats for over two hours.

Before the constant disasters and atrocious violence of the new century, some subjects were considered too serious and important to trivialize. Thomas Harris, the author of The Silence of the Lambs, assembles a yarn that now has an awful parallel with 9/11. The mass murder planned by this film’s terrorists is highly unlikely, but admittedly possible. Who in 1977 would have thought that a similar devastating blow against the U.S. could be accomplished far more easily?

John Frankenheimer’s skillfully constructed and lavishly produced Black Sunday stays at the level of good cops vs. dangerous killers, despite using the real militant organization Black September as its fictional villains. We really like the good parts of this movie, so well directed by John Frankenheimer, of 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.

 

A political mass murder plot is underway. 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 pilots the Goodyear Blimp.

Superproducer Robert Evans lined up proven talent, 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 centers around the Goodyear Blimp, and the reasons why a Goodyear pilot could possibly be involved in such a terrible crime: he just happens to be a borderline psycho obsessed with a desire to strike back against the U.S., for perceived wrongs by the U.S. Navy. Bruce Dern is extremely credible as the embittered serviceman, manipulated by the seductive spy Marthe Keller.

Frankenheimer said that he wanted to make a thriller without an overt political statement, which with this subject matter would seem impossible. The show attempts to distance the Arab world at large from terrorism, via a scene in which an Egyptian diplomat (Walter Gotell) gives Kabakov some needed information. We judge the attackers by the company they keep. A Japanese ship’s captain (Clyde Kusatsu) and a Turkish importer (Michael V. Gazzo) are both shifty ‘foreigners’ that enable terrorism for profit. Dahlia Iyad and Mohammed Fasil feel justified striking back against Western violence and oppression, and with Dahlia it’s also a case of personal vengeance.

 

Marthe Keller is excellent in a difficult role, fleshing out a serious character dedicated to political revenge. Her Dahlia Iyad must work hard to keep her emotions in control for this outlandish suicide mission. Thousands of movies and TV shows now give us characters trained to be highly effective killing machines, a cliché that’s now as boring as most fictional serial killers. Both Keller and Robert Shaw are sketched as ice-cold assassins well versed in violence, yet both are given human weaknesses.

“What exactly is this ‘Super Bowl?'”

The often misused Robert Shaw is fine as the self-doubting aging patriot-assassin, the only man capable of stopping the massacre. His 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 agent 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. 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 stuffy Walter Brooke (The Graduate) leads the expected group of intelligence watchdogs in conference scenes.

 

In 1977 Bruce Dern was one of the most unappreciated actors in Hollywood, typed forever as the psycho creep that shoots John Wayne in The Cowboys. Going against that perception, Dern anchors slippery fare like Silent Running and is simply excellent in Smile and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Dern reportedly accepted yet another psycho part in Black Sunday because it was so well written. One year later, he was back playing a far more stereotyped military psycho for Coming Home, foaming at the mouth and threatening Jane Fonda with a rifle. The best way to appreciate Bruce Dern’s range is in pictures like The King of Marvin Gardens,  The ‘Burbs and Nebraska.

Dern’s 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 bomb test in an old desert hangar leaves a perfect pattern of holes in a wall of sheet metal, convincing us that his fléchette weapon could kill a great many Super Bowl attendees. The desert demonstration fully prepares us for director Frankenheimer’s final action set piece, which stretches out for almost 45 minutes.

 

For most of its running time Black Sunday is as good as action-conspiracy pictures get. John Frankenheimer shows his skill with complex shots, many staged in the middle of a real Super Bowl game. Frankenheimer’s famed Live TV background comes into play when Robert Shaw enters a network broadcast control truck, pushing the ‘You are there’ factor to the limit.

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 as clearly as in a fiction film. 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. It isn’t like the film could wait a year for the next game, if Frankenheimer couldn’t get the shot.

(Big Spoilers begin.)

When the thriller settles into the actual commission of the terrorist ‘super crime,’ Frankenheimer or his editors stretch the tension out too far. The preview audience I saw Black Sunday with laughed several times. The first was at the sight of the blimp approaching the edge of the stadium. Instead of looming up threateningly, as 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?”

In 1977 there was no convincing visual effects solution to show a blimp crashing into a football stadium filled with screaming fans. The editors don’t have enough wide action shots to cut with. 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.    We see only brief glimpses of the blimp in relation to the stadium. It knocks over a light stanchion (which in itself should have killed a number of spectators) and drifts down to the field for awhile. The effects cheats go against Frankenheimer’s no-compromise visuals elsewhere in his movie.

After the immediate threat is subdued, what’s left is a heroic save-the-day situation where realism is replaced by comic book action. Kabakov swings down a cable as might Roger Moore’s cartoonish 007. We begin to question the feasibility of what we’re seeing: could a helicopter really tow a blimp, against the power of the blimp’s motors?

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. That shot was met with 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 the world-class actor Robert Shaw were too embarrassed to show his face.

This criticism is probably too harsh — the finale isn’t that bad, and Black Sunday’s overall thriller grade remains very high. I re-watch it 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 the finale leans a little bit wonky.

 


 

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Black Sunday ’77 appears to be the same good encoding as seen on Viavision [Imprint]’s import disc from a couple of years ago. 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 — Frankenheimer subordinates everything to the storytelling, even the music.

John Williams’ expert suspense score fits the show like a glove. Arrow says that this disc has ‘original restored lossless mono audio, presented for the first time on Blu-ray.’ Lossless restored 5.1 and 2.0 stereo options are present as well.

Arrow’s extras are completely different from those on the earlier import release, and use expert English critics. The audio commentary by Josh Nelson is thoughtful and detailed. He starts by emphasising that Thomas Harris’s ‘preposterous’ Arab terror attack became very real 25 years later. Nelson relates a great deal of background about the novel and the production. A visual essay by Sergio Angelini tells the same story in a more linear form, a half-hour piece that covers all bases, including the film’s controversial political context.

And we get a great deal of filmmaker and star input on the longform American Film Institute documentary The Directors: John Frankenheimer from 2003: John Frankenheimer, Roy Scheider, Rod Steiger, Steven Spielberg, Evans Evans, Kirk Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Lansbury, Ann-Margret, etc. The show is heavy with clips and behind-the-scenes stills and film footage. Big movies get deep coverage, and the ones that didn’t do so well zip by with a fast mention. Fair enough.

Barry Forshaw’s insert essay begins by looking at Black Sunday through its source author, Thomas Harris.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Black Sunday ’77
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (Original restored lossless mono, restored lossless 5.1 and 2.0 stereo)
Supplements:
New audio commentary by Josh Nelson
New visual essay It Could Be Tomorrow by Sergio Angelini
2003 documentary The Directors: John Frankenheimer.
Image gallery
Illustrated 16-page booklet with essay by Barry Forshaw.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 19, 2023
(6901sund)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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