***/**** Image A Sound B
starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver
screenplay by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat
directed by John Frankenheimer
by Walter Chaw Before Thomas Harris created a genius shrink-turned-serial murderer, he wrote the everything-old-is-new-again terrorist saga Black Sunday, managing to incorporate the Super Bowl into its tale of good intelligence saving the day. How novel. What's constant between this and Harris's Hannibal Lecter trilogy is his interest in broken heroes: the inversion of the man of action archetype that germinated in the Fifties Western tradition and flowered in the voodoo ego-nomics of the Reagan-mad Eighties, locating Black Sunday firmly in the deep well of Seventies cinema--filthy with ineffectual champions and astringent endings. But where Harris's novel understood its place in the bittersweet, paranoid zeitgeist, Black Sunday, with its all-star cast (Robert Shaw two years after Jaws, Bruce Dern at his peak, Marthe Keller a year removed from Marathon Man), megalomaniacal producer Robert Evans, and blockbuster aspirations, proves to be another Star Wars-style harbinger of the impending end of what was possibly the most amazing period in film in history.
By 1977, John Frankenheimer was in desperate need of a hit. I don't know that he was ever the same since the assassination of close friend Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and while it's true that one of the touchstone atrocities of the Sixties ruined Frankenheimer (even as it nourished the furious cinema of the Seventies), it's also true that the main difference between the director of some of the seminal films of the Sixties (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, The Train, Seven Days in May) and some of the worst films of all time since (Prophecy, French Connection II, The Holcroft Covenant) is courage. Watergate, Vietnam, Kent State, Watts... What inspired some artists to rage against the machine caused Frankenheimer to retreat, his late-years prickliness the kind of knee-jerk defensiveness of a man who knew the shape of his cosmic flinch. Black Sunday, despite its technical proficiency, tight script, and sharp performances, is finally just a movie about how a lone hero can save the world from a gang of highly organized, highly dedicated terrorists. It's a fantasy--if an expert one with a rosy conclusion undermining the core disquiet at work in the rest of the film. It's something like finding Bobby Ewing in the shower--and that equivocation is, at the end of discussion, the thing that's the most prescient about an already shockingly prescient film.
Maj. David Kabakov (Shaw) is a weary Israeli agent on the trail of Palestinian terrorists, wiping out a cell of them but sparing lovely flower Dahlia (Keller) as he surprises her in the shower. He's not ruthless enough it seems, his years of murder leading to nothing more than what he describes in one of the film's sharpest speeches as an endless parade of the same atrocities carried off by the same offenders. And his act of fatigued mercy frees Dahlia to seduce disturbed Vietnam vet Michael Lander (Dern), enlisting him in a plot to explode the Goodyear Blimp during and above the Super Bowl.
Though much is justifiably being made of the implausible film's sudden plausibility post-9/11, there's still a considerable gap between a jetliner and a blimp on the threat-meter--a fear chasm addressed in the film by a ratcheting of the histrionics to a ridiculous pitch. What begins as a dark, uncompromising, character-driven thriller ends in a full hour of Dern acting like a maniac, Shaw bearing down, and Keller getting tearful and pulling hair. Not helping matters is that the climactic blimp chase goes on for a stultifying length with practically zero tension, betraying laughable bluescreen effects that are tempting to blame on age, but had already been done with more skill and enduring persuasiveness for decades (see: North by Northwest). Its conclusion beyond ridiculous with its cheery epilogue of Shaw-on-a-rope the stuff of camp legend, Black Sunday is, in a self-contained microcosm, the decline of mainstream film from the Coppola of The Conversation to the Coppola of Jack--a shrinking away from dialogues that matter in favour of pomp and hollow circumstance. For as flawed as Black Sunday's third act turns out to be, however, the movie clearly deserves some sort of special feature support from its studio, particularly in light of its sudden topicality.
Alas, the studio in question is Paramount, who never met a title they couldn't dump unceremoniously on the format. Black Sunday finds itself in an excellent 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer that preserves the particular filmic quality of a seventies production, distracting often enough from the fact that the black levels are spot on and that there's a minimum of edge enhancement. A rich DD 5.1 remix makes good use of channel separation, though the final conflagration sounds suspiciously like a stretched mono track: It's imperfectly distributed and a little tinny besides. Bonus material? Surely you jest. Originally published: April 6, 2004.