Screen Reviews
Black Sunday (1977)

Black Sunday (1977)

directed by John Frankenheimer

starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller

Arrow Video

in 1977 the image of a blimp crashing into a crowded football stadium was omnipresent, first on the paperback editions of Thomas Harris’s novel Black Sunday and later on the poster for the film adaptation. The enigmatic image was a winner for Harris (in one of his few non-Hannibal Lecter novels) and should have been a huge hit at the box office, but that was not the case. Black Sunday did respectable numbers but never really caught hold despite its pedigree of the Harris novel, a proven director in John Frankenheimer, and real star power with co-leads Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern. The film simply may have been too far ahead of its time as a film with anti-heroes as protagonist and antagonist and a procedural plot that is more interested in the how than the why of both the terrorists and the men determined to stop them. The Super Bowl disaster gimmick is the only reason the film is remembered today, but there is much more to this thriller than that and it has proven to be prescient both stylistically (focusing on the nuts and bolts of the terrorist attack rather than dealing with the aftermath) and in its foretelling of the present where any large gathering of people from symphony performances to Super Bowls are under intense security scrutiny after the reality of terrorism in the United States became reality in 2001.

With little actual information to work with apart from a vague threat of a terrorist attack in the US, Israeli Mossad agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) must track down Palestinian terrorist group Black September member Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller). Iyad has recruited bitter and tormented Vietnam vet and POW Michael Lander (Bruce Dern) who has a side gig piloting the Goodyear blimp. Iyad and Lander both want to inflict a dramatic loss of life in a public way but for very different reasons. Lander’s motivations are purely personal and Iyad’s political, but they are united in their desire to die for a cause and take tens of thousands of innocent lives with them, by using the Goodyear blimp to ferry a bomb filled with darts into the Super Bowl crowd. Kabakov is no less motivated, even if he fears he is getting soft, and ruthlessly leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake as he tries to uncover the Black September plot and then stop the mass murder. The mirroring of the two plot lines is a fascinating study of how context alters our views of fanaticism. There’s an odd scene at the end of the second act where Iyad and Lander fly out into the desert at a dilapidated refueling station & hanger to test their explosive darts invention. To Iyad’s horror, Lander murders the attendant along with blasting thousands of tiny holes in the hangar. The casual cruelty of killing the caretaker is oddly chilling even in the face of the plan to murder tens of thousands with the device in a matter of days. The scene also wipes away audience sympathy for the duo and cements real stakes for the film. The final act of the film is truly a case of “this could never get made today’ and frankly it is shocking it got made in the ’70s. The film’s producer, Robert Evans (Chinatown), managed to get the full cooperation of Goodyear and the NFL in the production of Black Sunday. Try to imagine today’s NFL allowing a film crew to shoot a movie about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, at the actual game. But that’s what happened. The final act takes place at Super Bowl X and was shot during the actual game in Miami between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. Robert Shaw is patrolling the stadium while Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw are slinging passes on the field. The approach was certainly novel and adds an intense hyper-reality to the film.

The Blu-ray release from Arrow features a lovely print of the film that manages to look terrific on modern TVs while maintaining the softer, grainy film textures that exemplify so much of 1970s cinema. The disc also features audio commentary by film scholar Josh Nelson, a visual essay by critic Sergio Angelin, and an hour long feature on director John Frankenheimer.

Black Sunday may not have impacted public consciousness either in its initial release or subsequent TV and home video releases, but it is a film that feels more contemporary than most 45-year-old thrillers. Combining terrific performances from Shaw and Dern alongside a ton of great character actors, plus the added novelty and nostalgia of actually being filmed during the Super Bowl certainly makes for compelling viewing.

Arrow Video


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