Black Sunday (1977)


Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller, Marathon Man) is a Palestinian agent who has enlisted a wacky Vietnam veteran Michael Lander (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to help her place a bomb inside the Goodyear Blimp during the Super Bowl in Miami, Florida. Israeli agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw, Jaws) and CIA man Corley (Fritz Weaver, Demon Seed) work together to try to stop Iyad and Lander before it is too late.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Cancel the Super Bowl? That’s like canceling Christmas!”

Based upon Thomas Harris’s (The Silence of the Lambs) 1975 best-selling novel of the same name, Black Sunday is smart and exciting, one of the best thriller films of the 1970s. Director John Frankenheimer (Seven Days in May) creates some phenomenally tense sequences, and the superbly executed climax will leave you breathless.

Although it’s a very long movie, Black Sunday feels much shorter than it really is. This is in large part due to both Frankenheimer’s ability to evoke a sense of urgency, and a multi-layered script by Ivan Moffat (George Stevens’s Giant), Kenneth Ross (The Day of the Jackal) and Ernest Lehman (Hitchcock’s North by Northwest).

The main characters feel like real people with real problems. For example, the film’s (anti)hero, brilliantly played by Robert Shaw, is a troubled and complex character. The villains aren’t your typical one-dimensional monsters either — the baddies are scary precisely because they look, sound and act like ordinary people.

None of the three leading players let the spectacle overshadow their work. As I said before, Shaw is simply superb as the world-weary Israeli agent obsessed with capturing the terrorists. It’s too bad that the excellent British actor died just a couple of years after completing the film because it’s obvious that he was at his peak.

Bruce Dern goes deliciously over-the-top as a Vet with an acute case of PTSD. Marthe Keller’s cold-blooded killer is chilling. Dern and Keller make a wonderful couple of crazies. The cast also includes Michael V. Gazzo (The Godfather II), William Daniels (The Graduate), and Walter Gotell (General Gogol in the James Bond movies).

The special effects look primitive by today’s standards, but the stunt work is exceptionally good. There is something genuinely exciting about seeing real people — no CGIs — in dangerous situations. John Williams’s (Jaws and Star Wars) music score is, of course, rock solid. John A. Alonzo (Chinatown)’s camerawork is excellent, too.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Black Sunday is a terrific production with a plot that will interest post 9/11 viewers. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, certainly one of director John Frankenheimer’s best! It’s also influential: filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged that he “borrowed” a scene from the movie for his Kill Bill saga. Color, 143 minutes, Rated R.

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