' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Black Sunday (1977)

Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Black Sunday (1977)

The money shot in “Black Sunday” might well make you laugh as heartily as it will make you gasp. It is a shot of the gone-rogue Goodyear Blimp, piloted by terrorists and packed with a bomb and steel darts, looming like a floating airship “Jaws” over the upper deck of the late Orange Bowl stadium hosting the Super Bowl. (“Black Sunday’s” score was composed by John Williams, the man who actually scored “Jaws”, and who, of course, scored “Star Wars”, released in the same year as “Black Sunday.” And rest assured, you will detect the “Star Wars” score in the “Black Sunday” score. It’s freaky.) Perhaps I’m out of line. Perhaps it would not have been as funny at the time, five years removed from Black September – the villains of the film – committing their infamous and terrible act of terror at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.


Still, there is something wretchedly humorous in a flying corporate advertisement attacking the most corporate sporting event in the world, one attempting to gobble up the other. If it had been made just a few years later, “Mean” Joe Greene, in the midst of the attacking blimp melee, could have valiantly saved a bottle of Coke (and, in fact, the pilot at the controls of the gone-rogue Goodyear Blimp is heard to say just before the climax, “Could you go in back and get me a Coke?”).

“Black Sunday” was directed by John Frankeinheimer, a man who could really kick it with a decent script (“The Train”, “Ronin”), and the screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat which was based on a novel by Thomas Harris authored in the wake of Munich. The script is detail oriented but swiftly paced, the direction is impressively taut, often employing handheld camerawork without feeling herky-jerky, and overall the film is as thrilling as it is unsettling. Much was made of how last summer’s “Man of Steel” laid waste to a whole city, yet never made it seem civilians were in any real peril. In “Black Sunday”, however, when an armed terrorist grabs a woman as a hostage and then charges headlong into beachfront crowds so as to use bystanders as a shield, you will feel the lump in your throat. This could be happening.

The viewing experience becomes that much more knotty upon realization the film has essentially provided no one for whom you can conveniently root. If anything, Frankenheimer is asking us to identify with Michael Lander, the Goodyear Blimp pilot, who decides to team with Black September for payback after being tortured as a POW in Vietnam only to return home to a court martial and a divorce. Lander is played by Bruce Dern, gleefully unhinged, occasionally, when in aviator sunglasses evoking Dr. Strangelove, and he is both an empathetic victim and a no-account finger-pointer. Everyone else caused him to want to blow up The Super Bowl.

It is Lander's vengeful insecurity that Dahlia (Marthe Keller), the Black September operative desperate to make a group statement by hitting America right where it hurts, plays straight to. She ably manipulates Lander to do her bidding, and they are both willing to go down in flames for their cause. Even when Dahlia is compromised because she insists on recording a tape confessional in advance of the attack, a tape which is discovered by the Americans, she refuses to follow orders and pull out. She is hell bent and hard-headed, not unlike David Kabakov (Robert Shaw), "a man who takes things to their ultimate conclusion", the Mossad agent hot on the Black September trail. Like Dahlia’s bullishness, he too has a fatal flaw, and it is in the film’s opening when he has a shot to take Dahlia out and doesn’t.


Kabakov, I guess, becomes the “hero” because he’s the person with law enforcement tracking those opposed to the law, but Frankenheimer does not go out of his way to draw us to Kabakov’s side. His methods are questionable, brutal even, and he confesses a reluctance to continue the investigation until his partner is requisitely killed, at which point it becomes as much about payback as right and wrong. If anything, the film shows us how perhaps potential terrorist threats can only be squashed (albeit barely) if rules are broken and the heroes are as heedless as the villains.

Dark, I know, but it’s why “Black Sunday”, in keeping with the spirit of its title, is rife with gallows humor. “Cancel the Super Bowl?!” cries Joe Robbie (as himself). “That’s like canceling Christmas!” Indeed. If you think for half-a-second that current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would cancel the Super Bowl because of a perceived terrorist threat, you must have missed the film employing real footage of Super Bowl XIII in “Black Sunday”, the Super Bowl in which Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw had to leave the game after hurling a touchdown pass with a concussion. Players will get concussed and Super Bowls will be played after blackouts and in wintry mix and during terrorist threats because ad revenue trumps all. Don’t believe me?

Look no further than the hapless Goodyear Blimp pilot whom Lander and Dahlia must murder to ensure Lander can take the controls. Alas, the murdered pilot is discovered in his hotel room, which springs Kabakov into action, when the hotel concierge is tasked with entering the pilot’s room and dropping off a courtesy bottle of J&B scotch.

In other words, a nifty bit of product placement saves the day.

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