By Scott Ross
Black Sunday (1977) could probably not be made today — or at least, not the same way. Doubtless its depiction of utterly ruthless Arab and Palestinian terrorists would raise an outcry no Hollywood studio would be comfortable attracting to a big-budget thriller. (Especially considering the new reliance for mega-bucks on the mass of sub-literate Asian picturegoers who are the true intended audience for American movies now.) Never mind that the Israeli agents portrayed in the picture are every bit as unsparing, or that the 1975 Thomas Harris novel on which it was based was written in the early–to-mid 1970s, long before the attacks of 9-11 financed if not indeed carried out by Our Friends, The Saudis but not long after the internationally televised atrocity at the Olympic Village in Munich. If I am skeptical of Movieland suits in this matter it is not that I wish to see Semitic peoples vilified. We’ve had quite enough of that, inside Hollywood and out. But Harris’ bestselling novel (his first, predating the Hannibal Lecter series by half a decade) was surely written at least in part as a response to Munich, and as a commentary on the viciousness, not of Palestinians or Arabs generally, but of the Black Sunday group itself. (Add that his protagonist, the Israeli David Kabakov, is, as he tells a confederate, beginning to question and thus is no good to the Mossad, and you have an idea of Thomas’ ambivalent approach.) Rather I am pointing out that generating such a movie now would take more spinal and intestinal fortitude than can habitually be found among the studio brigade, terrified as they are of taking chances — something their 1970s counterparts were accustomed to doing on a routine basis.*
Still: Imagine the reaction of Paramount executives to John Frankenheimer’s initial cut, which ended with the Goodyear blimp carrying a deadly cargo designed to kill 80,000 spectators crashing over the top tier of the Miami Orange Bowl as the screen goes to black. The End. Not on your nellie, mister! We paid top dollar for that goddamned book, and it’s not ending that way! Frankenheimer (who surely knew he couldn’t get away with it) was forced to shoot additional sequences that conformed more closely to Harris’ book (although Kabakov does not go down with the ship — er, blimp — as he does in the novel) and it’s a good thing he was. Audiences who sat through a terrifically exciting two-hour thriller, only to be greeted with that ending, would have been ready to set a bomb off under the filmmakers themselves.
The foregoing presumably accounts for Black Sunday’s unusually long running time (2 hours, 23 minutes) and the presence in its credits of three screenwriters (the estimable Ernest Lehman and Ivan Moffat as well as Kenneth Ross, the scenarist of the excellent Day of the Jackal adaptation.) It may also explain some rather paltry blue-screen imagery in the movie’s final quarter hour, surely not the fault of John A. Alonzo, the movie’s accomplished director of photography. Not that any of it did Paramount much good: By the time the movie was in release, it had been beaten to the nation’s screens by a cheapjack Charlton Heston Super Bowl disaster picture called Two-Minute Warning, and, while Black Sunday was the studio’s biggest grosser in 1977, it still didn’t do enough business to really matter. Almost no one’s pictures did that year, except a certain space-fantasy released by 20th Century-Fox.†
Cavils aside, Black Sunday was and remains a superlative example of the thriller genre, at which Frankenheimer excelled. He was, of course, a brilliant director of drama as well — All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Fixer, The Gypsy Moths, The Iceman Cometh — but it is as an assured maker of action pictures that his larger reputation rests: Seven Days in May, The Train, French Connection II, The Challenge, Ronin and, supremely, The Manchurian Candidate. The sheer logistics in his pictures took a steady head, and here Frankenheimer not only staged an exciting speed-boat chase and an agonizing, long, palm-dampening climax but had as well to accommodate thousands of sports fans at an Orange Bowl event… not to mention the presumably nervous heads of the Goodyear Company. There is a single, continuous panning shot late in the movie which begins by following the car driven by Marthe Keller, floats up to the top tier of the Orange Bowl, and down again onto the field to pick up Robert Shaw’s eminently familiar face, that is as breathtaking as it is un-ostentatious. It’s the kind of thing Spielberg became a master of, but which very few picture makers other than perhaps David Lean could have carried off at that time with such seeming nonchalance. (Astonishingly, the picture was made during the director’s long period of bibulousness. Which may account for his attempt at ending it on such a shocking downer.)
Keller is problematic, as she always was, by dint both of her accent and her limited abilities, and the script fudges her character’s origins to oblige her Swiss roots. The lethal Dahlia should ideally have been played by a Palestinian or Arabian actress, but which one would have been an acceptable enough substitution to feature above the title? No such qualms concern Bruce Dern as the movie’s chief psychopath. It’s the sort of role that Dern must have resented at the time (they came to him so often) but he triumphs over the typecasting. That Michael Lander is a Vietnam vet could have been problematic; this was, after all, the era of the Nixonian lie which claimed without any evidence that such soldiers were spat on in airports, and in which so many convenient fictional villains were vets, walking time-bombs “snapping” at last back home.
Michael’s experiences as a prisoner of war reduced to a coerced statement of Quisling complicity by his captors during the war, and his subjection to unconscionably cavalier bureaucratic treatment by the brass after, counteract that conventional narrative ploy, making him emotionally unpredictable in a way the audience can easily comprehend… although it must be said that the Michael of the movie is nowhere near as frightening a figure as he is in the book; there’s a moment in Harris’ novel where, to make a point, he shoves a kitten down a kitchen sink garbage-disposal that shocked me when I read it at 15, and has remained vivid in my consciousness ever after. Really, I’d prefer to see that nowhere aside from the cinema of my mind. And not even there.
Shaw must have relished both his paycheck, his top billing, and the opportunity to play a quietly heroic (if perhaps necessarily pitiless) hero after so many years of villainy: As that cold sociopath “Red” Grant in From Russia with Love (1963), a scarily mercurial Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, the equally dangerous Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, the chilling Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the Ahab-like Quint of Jaws, and even the Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin and Marian. Kabakov is as dangerous as any of these, but more messily human. It is, after all, his unwillingness to gun down the vulnerable Dahlia at the beginning of the picture that makes the entire “Black Sunday” operation in Miami possible.
The great Fritz Weaver does his usual impeccable work as Kabakov’s FBI coeval; Michael V. Gazzo turns up as a sleazy go-between subjected to a typically brutal bit of questioning by the Israeli (whose ironic nickname in the Mossad is “The Final Solution”); William Daniels provides a nice turn as a sympathetic V.A. psychologist; and Walter Gotell, the splendidly multifarious General Gogol of the Roger Moore Bonds, shows up as a finely-judged Arabian ambassador. Frankenheimer himself can be glimpsed, briefly, in what those who worked with would recognize as his occasionally manic directorial mode, as a CBS television director. In this splendid ensemble only the rather blank-faced Keller fails to land. Her presence among so fine a cast is a puzzler. Then again, the entirety of her 1970s stardom itself never made a great deal of sense to me. She isn’t terrible, but she’s barely adequate, and, in this company, that’s nearly as bad as being rotten.
Mention should be made here of Tom Rolph’s vigorous editing, and of Alonzo’s use of the hand-held camera, becoming rarer in those early days of the Steadicam and used here for its deliberate effect of documentary immediacy. Alonzo’s work reaches it apogee during preparations for the terrorist attack on the Super Bowl crowd. This sequence contains in the most striking moment in the picture, following Dern’s bomb-test, performed in an abandoned building in the desert, when we see the old wooden structure from the inside, its walls peppered from floor to ceiling by shrapnel blasts; the sunlight streaming through, giving the interior the quality of diaphanous lace. As Dern extols the beauty of the bomb’s symmetry to an unnerved Keller, the visual is in fact beautiful, and deeply chilling: We understand as Keller does what those thousands of sun-drenched pores really represent.
John Williams was, at the time, not yet a household name even after composing the then-ubiquitous Jaws theme. (In a couple of months, everyone would know his name.) This may account for Paramount’s deigning to release a soundtrack album, which seems to me to have been a major miscalculation, as Williams’ score is absolutely integral to the success of the picture.‡ Its main theme is an ominous twelve-note phrase (three clusters of four notes each, with a single variation in the second phrase) that, repeated, becomes a melodic accompaniment to Frankenheimer’s visuals, sowing the seeds of dread early on (although not, interestingly, during the picture’s opening credits, which are played out sans musical accompaniment) and carrying through to the end titles, during which a nervously triumphant fanfare takes over, one that anticipates similar thematic phrases in Williams’ later scores for Dracula and The Fury (both 1978) and that hints at an uneasy truce. This isn’t The End, that composition seems to suggest, merely a temporary lull — a sentiment his compatriot Spielberg would one day echo at the end of his own depiction of terrorism and its bloody aftermath.
That we end with a nod to Munich seems appropriate to the inspiration for Black Sunday itself. Such calculated ideological violence is itself a circle, a corona from whose deadly radiations we never seem to learn.
* The suits would be utterly un-manned if confronted today by something like the 1984 George Roy Hill-directed adaptation of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, which looks askance at both the PLO and the Mossad. That one, now, wouldn’t even get optioned, much less produced.
† Close Encounters of the Third Kind also did well enough to be considered a hit, and Annie Hall did exceptional business for a parochial Woody Allen picture. But only Star Wars really went through the stratosphere.
‡ It was, thankfully, released in full thirty-three years later by Film Score Monthly.
Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross