By John H. Foote
17. BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
In the 40 plus years since Black Sunday first was shown on screens the world has changed in ways we never could have imagined in 1977. Before the 9/11 attacks, did we ever believe terrorism was so close? Was so possible? That terrorists would strike the United States and alter the world for all of time?? Could that much hatred really be possible? Did anyone really believe that?? Thomas Harris did, writing about an attack in the seventies in his superb book Black Sunday written years before his biggest hit The Silence of the Lambs (1991) adapted into an Oscar winning film. Paramount Pictures bought the rights to Black Sunday and hired John Frankenheimer to helm the film, a perfect choice given his previous success, and Robert Evans predicted the film would be a smash success.
Critically it was, the reviews solid, praising the films virtual documentary style to plunge the audience into an authentic experience, but oddly it just did not catch on with audiences. Too real perhaps??
Whatever the reasons, in the years since, I have not seen a greater film about the subject of terrorism than this film, nor anything quite as real, United 93 (2006) the only film coming close. For those of you who do not know the film, it is available on DVD, not Blu Ray and more than worth a look, if not for the performances and startling realism, than for the potential of the target portrayed in the film. Is it not incredible a major sporting event has never been a target? Or a political convention? Or an inauguration? Wherever a huge crowd gathers must now be considered a target. In Black Sunday the target was the Super Bowl, more specifically the 80,000 in attendance, especially enticing because the President at that time, Carter was going to be in attendance, given in the film it was an election year. We learn of this after a group of Israeli secret police storm a compound and kill all but one of the inhabitants, and find a videotape announcing the New Year will be rung in with blood and violence for the United States. What they do not know as they reveal the plans for the attack, not knowing where yet, have already begun, as the single person they did not kill, Dahlia (Marthe Keller) was not a prostitute as they thought, but rather a high ranking official who has seduced a former Viet Nam veteran with mental issues into working for their cause. Michael J. Lander (Bruce Dern) has denounced the actions of his government while a prisoner of war, and when released found his wife had cheated on him and divorces him. His job is to drive the Goodyear Blimp for the networks during football games, which Dahlia knows when she begins her seduction of him. As the day approaches, Kabakov (Robert Shaw) the head of the Israeli secret police gets closer and closer to discovering the location of the attack, inch by inch as Lander and Dahlia proceed, paying great attention to every detail. Lander has a complete breakdown when the attack is cancelled, but he and Dahlia decide to go through it anyway. Thrown off the blimp for his erratic behavior, Lander kills the pilot in his hotel room, and then proceeds to execute everyone aboard the blimp the day of the attack. By now Kabakov, the FBI and CIA have figured out the attack is going to be the Super Bowl and drape the area in security. When they discover one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world is in Miami, they chase him through the streets and kill him on a beach. Still not certain how the attack will happen, Kabakov eventually realizes it will be from the air using the blimp, now loaded with more than one hundred and fifty thousand lethal darts to explode in a circumference to kill everyone, including Lander and Dahlia. It becomes up to the courageous Kabakov to prevent the attack as the blimp descends into the Super Bowl.
John Frankenheimer was a rock-solid journeyman director liked by the studios for his habit of bringing the films in on budget or under and on time. There was no self-indulgence with him, he always served the story, actors loved him, and his films were usually popular with audiences and critics. The Academy unfairly ignored him for several films or the performances in his films, but the industry knew and loved him. His best work included The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) featuring one of Burt Lancaster’s finest performances; The Manchurian Candidate (1962) an electrifying political thriller dealing with the concept of brainwashing (superb performances); 7 Days in May (1964), an electrifying political thriller; Seconds (1966), a superb thriller containing perhaps the finest performance given by Rock Hudson; Grand Prix (1966), about the high stakes racing world; French Connection II (1975) with a stunning performance from Gene Hackman, and some terrific work in television including The Burning Season (1994) and George Wallace (1997), both of which won him Emmys for Best Director. His finest film work was without exception Black Sunday.
Bruce Dern gave the finest performance of his long career as Lander, deeply damaged by the war in Vietnam, and believing the country let him down. Seething with hatred towards his government, the military and the people of the United States, he dreams of lashing back, of getting even. When the project is cancelled, Dahlia sees what he really wants is to give the people of the USA something to remember him by. Revenge is the answer to his intense hatred. We feel for Dern during this heartbreaking scene but never forget he is a dangerous psychopath who will kill if necessary and sometimes when not necessary. Dern is astounding at making the audience feel genuine heartache for him and terrify them seconds later. How did this man NOT win the Academy Award for Best Actor for this stunning performance?
Marthe Keller had quite a decade in the seventies with Marathon Man (1976), this film, Bobby Deerfield (1977) and the strange Fedora (1979), in which she worked with the legendary Billy Wilder allowing her to be one of the most visible actresses in movies, though that did not carry on into the eighties. She is terrific here as a murderous Joan of Arc, believing in what she is about to do with absolute devotion, seemingly in love with Lander, but knowing he is disposable if necessary.
Robert Shaw, so brilliant as Quint in Jaws (1975), gave likely his best performance other than Jaws in this film as Kabakov. Intense, crisp, direct, all business, he knows how dangerous the terrorists are, he has seen the results of their attacks, the death, and they will go to great lengths to finish what they started. He weeps as his partner is loaded onto a plane after his death but can shoot a man dead without hesitation on a crowded beach in Miami.
Superbly directed, shot and edited Black Sunday had everything to have made it a blockbuster but perhaps the exceptional realism Frankenheimer gave the film was the very thing that scared audiences away. I hope not, this is a masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.