[box cover]

Black Sunday

Black Sunday (1977), based on the novel by Thomas Harris, was once a reasonably entertaining thriller that derived its power from asking the unthinkable: What if international terrorists were plotting to carry out a strike not only on American soil, but at one of the country's most potent symbols of leisure and decadence, the Super Bowl, via the Goodyear Blimp? Now that the unthinkable has, sadly, been thought of and executed (and in a less complicated, yet much more devastating manner than imagined here), all the film has to rely on is its effectiveness as a thriller, which was never one of its strengths to begin with. Directed by John Frankenheimer at the beginning of what would prove to be a slump spanning two decades, Black Sunday is a listlessly slavish adaptation — by the venerable likes of Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, and Ivan Moffat, no less — of Harris's bestseller that lamely goes through the motions as it sets the stage for the sensational grand finale promised by its attention-getting poster. The story concerns the pursuit of a terrorist organization called Black September, which is dedicated to using violence as a means to jar the world into empathizing with the day-to-day misery of the Palestinians. On the eve of setting into motion their most ambitious attack yet, their Beirut compound is raided by an Israeli special forces unit led by Maj. David Kabakov (Robert Shaw). They slaughter everyone on the premises save for a beautiful young woman, Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller), whose life is spared by Kabakov himself. This proves quite the boneheaded play, as Dahlia is actually the point-woman for their Super Bowl plot, holding in her thrall the most crucial piece on the chessboard — Capt. Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), an unhinged, ex-Vietnam POW currently holding down a job as the pilot of the Goodyear Blimp for nationally televised football games. Though Kabakov lets Iyad slip away, he does recover a recording planned for broadcast after the attack has been carried out. But the message is vague, forcing Kabakov and his partner to chase down the conspirators and all those enabling them in the U.S., while trying to convince the Federal authorities that something truly dire is about to be perpetrated on the American public. Given his impressive track record with political intrigue pulled from the day's headlines, Frankenheimer surely seemed a natural for this material, but he's asleep at the wheel from the lazily staged opening sequence — a suspense-free waste of screen time that has Dahlia sneaking through a Beirut ghetto to avoid detection by the authorities — to the lead zeppelin finale. Sure, it's a hoot to see some of the action staged right in the middle of Super Bowl X, where Kabakov is seen sprinting hectically about the field as Roger Staubach leads his Dallas Cowboys against Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense, but Frankenheimer abuses the NFL's cooperation (which would never in a million years be granted today) by padding out the film with needless second-unit filler. If only he'd brought this same zeal for capturing atmosphere to tightening up the film's slack pacing, Black Sunday might be memorable as something other than "that movie where the Goodyear Blimp crashes into the Super Bowl." As for the performances, Shaw struggles with his accent, while Keller fails to shed hers. Only Dern makes much of an impression as the pitiful Lander, whose whimpering pledges of vengeance against the military and society in general come close to giving the picture a pulse. Paramount presents Black Sunday in a decent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The disc is devoid of extras. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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