February 05, 2010

BLACK SUNDAY (1977) - an epic terrorist thriller

(1977, USA)

The Baader-Meinhof Complex meets
The Hindenburg...
If you're expecting a disaster movie, which this was certainly sold as, you might be disappointed. Which I was when it was first released. Like Two Minute Warning, there's a very long wait for anything vaguely disastrous. Far too much emphasis was placed on the admittedly spectacular and expensive movie prop - the Goodyear blimp - which completely and literally overshadows a realistic counter-terrorism thriller. Based on a book, it was the story that grabbed the imagination - nowadays, we'd be just as interested in the author, Thomas Harris, now famous for The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, Hannibal...

A big-budget terrorism blockbuster, it's an epic story almost two and a half hours long. Counter-terrorist agent Kabakov chases Black September terrorist Dahlia across the world, trying to make sense of the scraps of information she fails to cover up. We begin almost as much in the dark as Kabakov as to what they're planning. The film spends as much time with the terrorists as with the police.

There are many standout scenes, some punctuated with violence that's almost too strong now. I remember seeing it in the cinema and being shocked by bystanders getting hit in the complex street shootout. I prefer the earlier section of the story with Kabakov slowly discovering their plot. The desert test is one memorable highlight, as much for the sunlight as the surprise. There's quite a change in tone when the action switches to Miami and another gear change as the Super Bowl kicks in.

Marthe Keller is a key piece of casting in understanding what they were aiming for. At times Black Sunday approaches the same level of gritty suspense as the tremendous Marathon Man, in which she also starred. The story centred around Nazi war criminals, Black Sunday has terrorists. While the 1970s had seen plenty of plane hijackings, assassinations and bombings, none had happened on American soil. This made the film an entertaining fiction, the same way disaster movies were fun as long as they were unlikely. The story wasn't meant to be a warning, as much as a fanciful 'what if?' for the sake of a good thriller.

Today it's more terrifying, and benefits from the matter-of-fact look at how terrorists operate and recruit, as well as how far counter-terrorist forces will go to track them down. Robert Shaw lands the great role as Kabakov, who can't afford to be less than ruthless in trying to save lives. He plays an action hero that seems very real - no wisecracks after the kills. He'd also played a steely killer in From Russia With Love and a very different hunter in Jaws. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Deep... Shaw had been in many great seventies films, so I was saddened and shocked when he passed away before the decade was out.

Marthe Keller is the other standout star as Dahlia, the terrorist sent to recruit a disaffected Vietnam veteran (Bruce Dern) whose job is the linchpin of their plot. While Keller reaches her emotional extremes, I was distracted when Dern occasionally fails to sell his moments of distraught mania.

This is classic John Frankenheimer, from the director of a long line of highly-regarded action movies and political thrillers. Seven Days In May, The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Seconds, Grand Prix, The French Connection II, Ronin are all recommended variously for large-scale action, gritty drama and edgy stories. His use of locations and handheld camerawork in Black Sunday add realism to a story we now wish wasn't quite so accurate.

Much of the finale was shot during the actual 1976 Superbowl (Pittsburgh Steelers vs Dallas Cowboys). Frankenheimer dares to include a couple of ambitiously complex crane shots to tie in the plot with the event. There are many shots of Robert Shaw in front of crowds that are too huge to fake, with the game going on behind him.

The Paramount DVD is an anamorphic 2.35 widescreen presentation, with optional 5.1 audio. I found the picture to be slightly too squeezed - faces looking too tall and thin - but that's just a niggle. Surely it's time to market it as a political thriller rather than keep on using the bloody blimp! Presumably they still haven't seen Woody Allen's Every Thing You Wanted To know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), as this artwork always reminds me of the sketch where the giant killer boob goes on the rampage...

John William's soundtrack has just been released for the first time ever, on CD -
more details from Film Score Monthly here.

1 comment:

  1. This film is also a favourite of academics, analysed at length in Macallisters' book 'Epic Encounters' and Tim Simmerling's book "Evil Arabs in American Film". They look at the themes of Orientalism, nationalism and identity that is thrown up in the film much of it linked to the politics of the ME. I remember some Jewish American writers, as in the journal New Republic, complaining that portrayals of Israelis in Hollywood films are always negative but Shaw's character proves this wrong, as he is shown to the 'hero' that American agents cannot be. The politics of the film is quite reactionary seen from today's perspective but still a brilliant thriller.