Sunday, February 2, 2014

Black Sunday

BLACK SUNDAY is one of several '70s pictures that seemed to exist mainly to showcase creative ways for people to die. More specifically, it was part of a long cycle of movies in the disaster genre in which large groups of the innocent and the not so much faced peril that either came from nature (THE SWARM), man's inability to cope with natural elements in a supposedly secure vessel (THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, the AIRPORT movies), or terrorist plots. BLACK SUNDAY is of the latter, sharing its often disreputable genre with things like ROLLERCOASTER and TWO-MINUTE WARNING, which like our film of interest featured a football stadium filled with fresh meat for the offing on the other side of a psychopath's scope.

But unlike most of the other films, 1977's BLACK SUNDAY is a mostly top-notch thriller. Besides the expected exciting chases and tense meetings, director John Frankenheimer's film takes another '70s film cliché, the shellshocked Vietnam vet gone amok, and makes him a believable, multidimensional human. Also unlike the other disaster pics, it does not sport an all-star cast you would otherwise see on Match Game or The Love Boat.  Instead, we have Bruce Dern in a knockout performance as Michael Lander, a former P.O.W. whose years of mental and physical torture lead him to join forces with Palestinian militants in a ghoulish plot to detonate the Goodyear Blimp over the Super Bowl in Miami.  Revenge.  What better place to make such a point? All those grinning Americans who spit on him when he returned from the jungle, doomed to be impaled with thousands of steel darts released from the underside of the very blimp he ordinarily pilots to film NFL matchups. The sort of plot I seriously doubt you would see in any post 9/11 film that isn't a documentary.

That is just one aspect that makes BLACK SUNDAY worth seeing. The retro interest (for those who dig '70s cinema) carries the film to the end, but the novelty of the storyline makes this feel like a true relic. Who would dare make a film like this after the unspeakable horrors that occurred at the World Trade Center and elsewhere on that September day in 2001? Has enough time passed to make such an enterprise feasible? Unlikely, in my opinion. Part of why BLACK SUNDAY works is imagining how this doomsday scenario sent shivers through 1970s viewers. Could never happen here, they thought.  This spectacle of a movie must have been impressive on the big screen. Especially the last half hour, with its nail biting, expertly photographed aerial chase and eventual Moment of Truth, when the nose of the blimp begins its decent into the Orange Bowl.

And about that. What should have been the most visually stunning moments of the movie unfortunately are undone by some seriously shoddy special effects. I've read differing accounts as to why the filmmakers really, um, dropped the ball on this but whatever the truth, the matted shots (and the editing choices) are almost as bad as many of the "B" movies of its era. This is really a shame.

But don't let that prevent you from watching BLACK SUNDAY. For a popcorn movie, it is more thoughtful than expected. In between the scenes that deliver the goods (a tense beach chase/shootout) are really poignant moments such as Lander's recollection of his time in 'Nam and of a photo of his wife she sent him that contained had a curious shadow. He tearfully explains his obsession over the photo, his terrible moment of realization of the identity of that shadow. A bravura moment, one among many for Dern.

I also liked a quiet scene with Israeli Intelligence Agent Kabakov (Robert Shaw), crushed all at once by the guilt of a career of ruthless methods, how he essentially created the young Palestinian terrorist, Dahlia (Marthe Keller) who is working with Lander. These are elements that separate this film from the other big budget fests.

But the key moment? When Kabakov visits good ol' Joe Robbie in Miami and tells him of the impending danger, that the Super Bowl may well have to be cancelled.

"Cancel the Super Bowl? That's like cancelling Christmas!"
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