Released in early 1977, John Frankenheimer’s thriller Black Sunday blends crime drama, espionage thriller, action flick, and disaster movie – all while maintaining an unexpected realism. It adapts the debut novel of author Thomas Harris, and indeed foreshadows the double narrative technique of his subsequent hit The Silence of the Lambs.
A group of Palestinian militants aligned with the Black September movement plot to launch a devastating attack on the USA, using the Goodyear blimp to detonate a massive explosive charge above the Super Bowl. While terrorist Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller) conspires with former Vietnam prisoner-of-war Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), the Israeli government sends its own agent David Kabokov (Robert Shaw) on a mission to track and shut them down.
Black Sunday is a thriller ripped from the news headlines of the time. Harris’ story makes a spin on the real-life Black September group whose violent invasion of the 1972 Munich Olympics led to the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and one West German police officer. At the same time the infamous brutality of the Israeli counter-terrorism agency Mossad is boldly portrayed in response. The USA’s treatment of its Vietnam veterans is also profiled via Dern’s character. The result is a movie that definitely benefits from a general understanding of global events of the time.
The film has a fascinating focus on its characters. Certainly it does not focus very much on suspense: as the narrative darts back and forth between terrorist and secret agent, there is little in the plot that is not revealed to the audience ahead of the protagonist. The film becomes a story more about ‘why’ than ‘what’, and most of the lead characters emerge with their morals deeply compromised and their motivations emotionally justified in their own minds. Kabokov is showcased to have a brutality to his behaviour – and the one time he resists that urge comes to cost him dearly. At the same time both Iyad and Lander feels as much victims as they do villains. All three lead roles are excellently played.
Action scenes are sparsely laid out across the film, but when they do arrive they hit hard with strong pacing and hand-held photography. An early raid on a Middle Eastern compound kicks the story into action, but it is an extended run-and-gun street chase in Miami that impresses the most. Frankenheimer has always demonstrated a skilled hand at sharp, aggressive action, and the chase shows off his signature style and prowess. When the film’s climax unfolds, it is on an unexpectedly wide scale given the preceding action – well-staged but arguably out of place with the rest of the feature. John Williams’ effective musical score prefigures much of his more famous work down the track. Black Sunday was his last film score before composing the soundtrack to George Lucas’ Star Wars later in 1977.
Black Sunday is very much a product of its time – in content, tone, and style – and while it may be considered second-tier Frankenheimer, it remains an effective and tightly-made thriller well worth experiencing. If nothing else, its appeal seems grounded in its cast: stalwarts like Bruce Dern and Robert Shaw, but particularly Marthe Keller’s excellent performance as Iyad. She is cool, complex, and enormously watchable.