Black Sunday Review
John Frankenheimer’s reputation rests largely on his direction of The Manchurian Candidate and, while that film is an undoubted classic, his later films have tended to be largely ignored. This is a shame because in movies like French Connection 2 and 52 Pick Up, he demonstrates that he never lost his touch, despite the alcohol problems which plagued him during the Seventies and Eighties. But I think the best film of the second half of his career is Black Sunday, a dynamite action thriller which is so well directed that I can’t understand why it hasn’t been more widely seen. Having flopped on release in 1977, the film was quickly consigned to TV showings but it’s an intelligent suspense movie which manages to be nail-bitingly tense while succeeding in its secondary aim of giving a fair hearing to both sides of a very complicated political situation.
Beginning in Beirut and quickly moving to the USA, the film deals with an attempted terrorist attack on the Miami Superbowl, led by Black September terrorist Dahlia Iyad (Keller) and embittered Vietnam veteran, and Good Year Blimp pilot, Michael Lander (Dern). The plot is discovered by Israeli agent Major David Kabakov (Shaw), who takes on the complex task of piecing together the details of the operation and attempts to stop it before 80,000 people are killed.
It’s rare for an American film to deal seriously with the Arab-Israeli struggle. There’s Otto Preminger’s Exodus of course, and the undervalued George Roy Hill film of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl (which is worth seeing for an extraordinary performance from Diane Keaton). The general standard, however, is well represented by the two US films about Operation Thunderbolt, the assault on the Entebbe hostages in 1975 - Victory At Entebbe and Raid On Entebbe - both of which present the Israeli commandos are heroic gods and the Palestinian hijackers as the lowest of the low who don’t think twice about getting rid of a sweet grey-haired little old lady. I won’t even bother to discuss The Delta Force, except to point out that it was directed by a man who changed his name in order to celebrate the Israeli capturing of the Golan Heights in 1967. It’s refreshing, given this context, to see that Black Sunday absolutely refuses to simplify the issues involved. If the plot naturally leads to Shaw’s Israeli agent saving the day, it’s not before he’s expressed, in surprisingly frank terms, the futility of the conflict to which he’s devoted his life. There’s a powerful scene where he talks to his opposite number in Palestine about how both sides will end up losing if they continue with the war. It’s also emphasised that this man, known as a ruthless winner, has lost all his family to a war which he no longer believes in. On the other hand, the Black September members are given a dignity that is equally surprising and they are allowed to express their cause in a clear and direct manner. When Dahlia‘s personal file is read out, a history of Israeli oppression and life in typhoid-riddled refugee camps, it’s commented to Shaw that “You should know her. After all, you created her” Without condoning terrorism – it’s made clear that the Palestinian government outlawed Black September in the early 1970s – the film evokes the horrible complexity of the Middle Eastern conflict with a seriousness that deserves praise.
The film’s refusal to succumb to stereotypes is demonstrated through the excellent cast. John Frankenheimer always gets strong performances from his leads and this is no exception. Robert Shaw’s stolid, determined style of acting is well used in the role of and his natural air of menace and difficulty in gaining audience sympathy is appropriate to the emotionally closed-off character. Bruce Dern is, as usual, quite riveting to watch as the Vietnam veteran whose experience of betrayal at the hands of both the government and his wife has tripped a switch in his head. Dern’s intensity is sometimes a little too near to going over the top, but there’s a remarkable scene where he breaks down in tears at the thought of a photograph of his wife and children that demonstrates what a fine actor he can be. Marthe Keller, in an almost impossible role that requires the audience to both comprehend and reject her, is excellent and her icy lack of emotion contrasts well with Dern’s jittery characterisation. When she explodes, she’s unpredictable and genuinely unnerving. Good support too, from the reliable Fritz Weaver as a believably flawed FBI agent.
Frankenheimer’s films have often had political overtones but Black Sunday is politically sophisticated in quite an unusual way. Rejecting a simple good-bad axis between state and terrorists, it explores the ways in which pain, hatred and violence become self-sustaining over a period of years and gradually devour the people who define themselves through them. At a time in history when we are asked to support a war against an ‘axis of evil’, it’s interesting to see a film which refuses to simplify moral questions. All the way through the story, we’re asked to not only condemn the use of terrorism to gain political advantage but also to understand and, in turn, condemn a history of violence and domination which created the terrorists. This also goes for the American. The way in which Lander’s disillusion with his country is portrayed is uncomfortably direct and the intensity of his personal anguish is dwelt upon to an extent which is unusual. We’ve seen self-hating Vietnam veterans before, but in this kind of action movie they have usually been ciphers. Lander isn’t a cipher, he’s all too believable and there’s a genuine bravery about the way the film turns the Superbowl into a metaphor for everything about America which he has turned against. There are doubts raised in the film about the torture used by the Israeli agents to gain information and while these eventually prove to be the way that the plot is discovered, there’s a nagging sense of unease which remains, as if these small encounters represent a politics based on oppression developed through an entirely understandable fear. There’s nothing celebratory here. The numerous deaths are not treated heroically or cathartically and the final image – a man swinging perilously from a helicopter – seems deliberately one which denies any straightforward resolution. It’s particularly intriguing, in the climax, to see how finely Frankenheimer balances our sympathies. We don’t want Lander to succeed but when his lighter keeps failing to light that fuse, we feel his desperation.
Black Sunday is, quite apart from being intelligent and adult, a fantastically entertaining suspense movie. In part, this can be attributed to the screenplay which takes Thomas Harris’ convoluted novel and manages to get a coherent 140 minute film out of it. We’re never unsure about where we are or the identity of the characters and the minute building of tension lies in the fanatical attention to detail. It’s no surprise to see two familiar names in the writing credits; Ernest Lehman, an old hand with spectacular suspense as North By Northwest demonstrated, and Kenneth Ross, whose script for Day of the Jackal was similar in construction to this one. Much credit must also go to the second-unit for the magnificent work with the Good Year blimp which provides the film with its riveting climax. This conclusion lasts nearly an hour and involves an epic chase by foot, car and helicopter, culminating in a gripping battle for control of the blimp. John A. Alonzo’s atmospheric cinematography is exemplary and the editing, by the great Tom Rolf, is razor sharp. This is a long film but it’s never boring or overly complicated. Frankenheimer and his crew keep a firm grip on the narrative threads and never fail to maintain our concentration. However, there’s still time for a lovely little black comedy interlude when Lander and Dahlia test out their weapon at a rural airfield, enlisting an annoying garrulous attendant as an unsuspecting participant. When the test has been successfully carried out, there’s a beautifully poised scene when Lander admires the symmetry of the destruction. For a moment, we feel his thrill at the aesthetic effect and it’s quite a shock to be brought back to the reality of the situation. When Frankenheimer is required to deliver the action goods in the climax, he comes up trumps with some stunning intercutting between three different plot strands that is almost too painfully suspenseful to watch. Some of the special effects look dated admittedly, and the process work is occasionally poor, but such is the grip of the film that these flaws don’t matter.
I don’t want to overstate the significance of what is, at the end of the day, just a very well made chase thriller. But when you consider how brainless the action-thriller genre has become in the hands of cut-happy directors and virtually illiterate writers, it’s a pleasure to see a suspense movie which manages to be simultaneously exciting and thought provoking. Black Sunday is unreservedly recommended.
Paramount haven’t bothered to do anything to make their DVD of this fine film anything special and there’s very little to say about the disc other than to register a certain disappointment. Given the renewed relevance of a film about a terrorist attack on America and the increased interest in Frankenheimer as a director, I’d have thought that some kind of special edition might have been appropriate, but apparently Paramount felt differently.
The film looks fairly good, although time has taken its toll in a few respects. There’s some very obvious damage to the print in the form of scratches and dirt and some of the colours seem to be a little washed out. However, there’s plenty of detail on display and no serious problems with artefacting or excessive grain are evident. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s worth pointing out that this movie has not been seen in the UK in its full Panavision ratio since its cinema release.
There are three soundtracks on offer. The English and French mono tracks are eminently satisfactory with clear dialogue and punchy music. However, for once, I was very impressed with the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. This mostly benefits the music, which sounds like it has been taken from a stereo master presumably recorded at the time. It may be that a surround track for the film was recorded for 70MM showings but I don’t know this for sure. However, kudos to Paramount for including a remastered version of the original soundtrack along with the 5.1 remix, thus keeping everybody happy.
No extras are present on the disc at all, not even the theatrical trailer. English subtitles are provided.
Black Sunday works like a charm and has a political intelligence which is rare in action cinema. The DVD is disappointingly free of extras but the film is presented quite well and, considering how cheaply it’s available online, is worth a look.