Film Review: Black Sunday (1977)

in #aaalast month


1970s were very difficult time for America. Its citizens were, however, unlike those in many Western countries during Years of Lead, mostly spared of international terrorism. Legendary producer Robert Evans, on the other hand, recognised spectacular terrorist act as an excellent way to combine two popular trends in 1970s Hollywood – complicated spy thrillers and disaster epics. The result was Black Sunday, 1977 film directed by John Frankenheimer, piece of cinema that was mostly ignored and misunderstood after premiere only to become disturbingly prophetic in light of certain traumatic events that occurred in 2001.

The plot begins in Beirut where the group of top Israeli covert operatives led by Major David Kabakov (played by Robert Shaw) attacks headquarters of radical Palestinian group Black September. Most of its leadership is killed, but Dahlia Iyad (played by Marthe Keller) escapes and comes to America to carry out ambitious terrorist attack which could result in deaths of thousands of innocent people. Kabakov informs US authorities about it and begins working with FBI agent Corley (played by Fritz Weaver) in order to catch Dahlia and stop her plans. In the meantime, she prepares her act with the help of her lover Michael Lander (played by Bruce Dern), former US Navy pilot who had spent years as prisoner during Vietnam War and, who embittered with the way wife and military bureaucracy handled him after return home, decides to take revenge through one memorable and murderous act. Lander works as a blimp pilot carrying TV crews during football games and this is an opportunity him and Dahlia would use to attack spectators during Superbowl.

Black Sunday originated as the novel by Thomas Harris, author later known as the creator of Hannibal Lecter. Its plot was inspired by infamous 1972 Munich Massacre and the film itself begins with a scene very much like one of the events that were its aftermath (later recreated in Spielberg’s Munich). Script, however, tends to avoid Hollywood’s usually simplistic and one-dimensional treatment of Arab-Israeli conflict by adding complexities and depth to various characters. Character of Dahlia, very well played by Swiss actress Marthe Keller, is portrayed as both vulnerable and resourceful woman, and the determination with which she tries to carry out her monstrous plan is explained by some very personal reasons for hating Israelis. Even her adversary and film’s nominal protagonist is more complex. Robert Shaw plays Kabakov as character who is quite aware and openly admits that he became some sort of monster in trying to protect his country and even allows himself to doubt whether assassinations, torture and other acts that cause so much discomfort for his rules-abiding American colleague Corley might serve nothing but perpetuate the endless cycle of violence. But the best acting job is undoubtedly carried out by Bruce Dern, actor who in 1970s became specialised for the roles of psychotic villains. He portrays Lander as mentally unstable and clearly dangerous, but also allows audience to find reasons why he became such and why he would, after years of torture followed by personal and institutional betrayal, find purpose of his life in single suicidal act.

Script was written by Ernest Lehmann, Ivan Moffat and Kenneth Ross, the latter known for his work The Day of the Jackal, one of the best thriller of all time. Comparisons between that film and Black Sunday point towards similarities in structure and plot that slowly builds tension before exciting finale, but Frankenheimer disappoints with his underwhelming direction and desire to have as many action scenes as possible. Many of those scenes are either unnecessary or overlong, and the problems with pacing and poor editing escalate in the finale that looks boring despite many of the scenes being actually made during the real Superbowl game. Black Sunday is almost destroyed in the end where potentially exciting race between the blimp and helicopters also disappoints due to poor and unconvincing special effects.

Black Sunday fared very poorly at the box-office, which could be explained with its disappointing finale, but also with American audience seeing the plot about terrorists that try to murder thousands of their countrymen on live television as preposterous. Now, when we know that such plots can actually exist and, unlike this film, be carried successfully, Black Sunday has its dark prophetic dimension. It is also reflected in a scene during which Kabakov is forced to seek help from his colleague and lifelong adversary, Egyptian Colonel Raif (played by Walter Gottel), and argues that the terrorist plot, if carried successfully, would bring American attention to Middle East as well as a lot of misery for both Israelis and Arabs, but more to the Arabs. Now, after decades of endless wars and continuous bloodshed at that part of the world, it is difficult not to feel sorry about such warnings not being listened to in real life.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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Critic: AA