Movie review: ‘Black Sunday’

Black Sunday” is a great film from the 1970s about terrorism, terrorists (both domestic and foreign) and anti-terrorism. It stands the test of time better than many films because of its quality and John Frankenheimer’s direction and, with the upcoming Super Bowl, it’s always quite topical this time of each year because terrorism just never goes away. “Black Sunday” has enough subplots and wonderful acting to energize most film buffs and is therefore solid on a variety of levels and not just a shoot-’em-up action flick. Back then, action was important, but so was the overall quality of many “action” flicks. But, remember, you can’t shoot the blimp down, “it’s filled with helium.”

(1977; rated R; 143 minutes; directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller)


(NOTE: I first revised this review on Aug. 17, 2014, and then again on Jan. 25, 2016, by updating links, corrected some grammar and added some insight and trivia. I further expanded the same things on Feb. 3, 2018.)

The 1970s brought the emergence of worldwide terrorism and at the pinnacle of the killing and cruel brutality was Black September, a fanatical offshoot of the Palestine Liberation Organization (but, of course, denied by PLO propaganda). It was proud to evoke fear and terror while making AK-47s the trademark weapon for terrorists and the image of wantonly murdering innocent people.


Before penning the novel “Red Dragon” (published in 1981) that introduced Hannibal Lecter and the well-known “Silence of the Lambs” in 1988 (click here for my review of that film), Thomas Harris wrote a story about bombing the Super Bowl. He called it “Black Sunday” and it was published in 1975.

The film of the same name came out two years later and while certainly no equal of the book, “Black Sunday” is a solid film – especially with its wonderful supporting cast and those actors’ work.

As for the headliners, I’ll tell the film’s story through them:

  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Robert Shaw plays Israeli agent “Maj. David Kabakov,” who, in a bit of soft-heartedness, lets Marthe Keller playing terrorist “Dahlia Ilyad” escape (at least until the last scene of the film … sorry, spoiler alert has come and gone). Shaw conveys his character’s purposeful, motivated and deadly countenance well and his voice is perfect for the character. Of course you’ll remember a better role from him two years earlier in “Jaws” and he’s also been in “From Russia With Love,” “The Sting” and “Force 10 From Navarone.” I liked him in both “Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review) and the original “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (click here for my review) and he was nominated for “A Man for All Seasons,” which won six Oscars (including best picture) and the only two it didn’t win was for supporting actor and supporting actress. Shaw died of a heart attack the year after “Black Sunday” was released. He was 51.
  • Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Keller is smooth and conveys her character’s deadly determination as the guiding hand behind the terrorist plot. She is the most facially expressive of the actors and manages to be cosmopolitan in either the United States or traveling to Lebanon to meet with terrorist leaders. Keller is terrific in her cold, calculating fanaticism, which is different than if she had been asked to be more emotional. She has been in “Marathon Man,” for which she was nominated, and, from the same year as “Black Sunday” the little-remembered and terrifically boring “Bobby Deerfield” with Al Pacino (click here for my review).
  • Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Bruce Dern is absolutely perfect in the role of the psychotic former U.S. Air Force pilot and Vietnam POW, “Michael Lander,” who is ticked off enough that he wants to blow up the president and the Super Bowl. He envisions a gigantic end-of-the-world statement using the you-know-which blimp and a bunch of plastic explosives that have air-gun darts as its shrapnel. Wow, that’s a mouthful. Dern easily conveys “Lander’s” bipolar and homicidal personality and gives the best performance of all the actors here. He has had a career of eclectic roles including “Django Unchained,” “Monster” and even comedies such as “Down Periscope” (click here for my review). He was nominated for “Nebraska” and “Coming Home.”

Now, let’s take a look at some of the supporting cast:

  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Michael V. Gazzo, who is more remembered for his nominated role in “The Godfather: Part II,” is solid as the importer “Muzi” who helps the terrorists. He has that whiny, petulant personality that works wonderfully in both aggression with federal agents as well as whimpering at the end of Shaw’s pistol. He died of a stroke at 71 in 1995 and his career included many roles on TV including on such diverse shows as “Columbo” and “Fantasy Island.”
  • Primetime Emmy nominee Fritz Weaver, who was also in “Marathon Man” as well as the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” (click here for my review), is good as FBI agent “Sam Corley” and is very efficient conveying his character’s basic lack of fortitude. His Emmy nomination was for the mini-series “Holocaust.” Weaver died at 90 in 2016.
  • Primetime Emmy nominee Stephen Keats puts aside the wishy-washy whiny role he played as the husband of a mugging victim in “Death Wish” (click here to read my review) and does a nice, aggressive turn as Israeli agent “Robert Moshevsky,” who’s the right-hand-man to Shaw. Keats is tough and aggressive to the end, but he didn’t really manage to elevate the character as he could have. I also liked him in the quirky “Turk 182!” (click here for my review). He also played gun seller “Jackie Brown” in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (sound familiar, Quentin?). Keats died at 49 in 1994 in an apparent suicide.
  • Finally, Walter Gotell plays “Col. Riat” and is an enemy who Shaw blackmails into giving information about Keller. In his short time on screen, he projects his character perfectly and deserved a bigger role. Gotell is much more familiar to movie audiences as “Gen. Gogol” in the “James Bond” franchise. Among those films for him are “The Spy Who Loved Me” (click here for my review) and “Octopussy” (click here for my review). He died at 73 in 1997 of cancer.

In the final analysis, the real star is Dern, who shines throughout. His best scene is looking at streaks of sunlight coming through thousands of dart holes in a warehouse wall where he tests his bomb device. Thanks, Bruce, it is quite wonderful work that stands the test of time.

In the end, the best thing I enjoy about this film is how it is an “action” film uncharacteristically driven by character development.

I was actually at the Orange Bowl in Miami for a Dolphins game during some of the filming of the exterior blimp scenes and will always remember the hilarious “helium” comment just before the film’s climax that I mentioned in the introduction for this review. It’s still interesting and fun to recall all these years later. Some of the exteriors were shot at a Miami Dolphins game, not the Super Bowl pictured in the on-field scenes of the movie.

Harris, who would later become a reclusive author with his success after his early novels, was a reporter for the Associated Press when he wrote “Black Sunday.” Harris was working in New Orleans, the site of one year’s Super Bowl and it becomes the site in the book. He and a couple of other AP reporters came up with the idea. He took it and ran with it.

The book and the film dovetail overall, but with some differences in locales, such as where the game is played. The movie gets a 1970s “R” rating for mild violence, brief semi-nudity and mild cursing (don’t concern yourself if the “R” might be a speed bump – you’ll find worse on MTV today).

Black Sunday” was way outside the top 10 films of the year at the box office, as it only brought in $15.7 million, according to Wiki. The No. 10 film “Annie Hall” had $38.2 million while the No. 1 film of the year was no surprise – “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” and it made a near-unbelievable $307.2 million (about 41 percent more than the No. 2 film “Smokey and the Bandit” also with Burt Reynolds had $126.7 million – click here for my review of that film). Here are some films (and one television series) I have reviewed from that year:

Additional cast and film notes via (the opinion expressed is mine):

  • The late Joe Robbie, original owner of the Miami Dolphins, has a cameo which he scoffs at the idea of cancelling the Super Bowl … more than a generation before you’d have to move heaven and earth, much less a terrorist plot, to stop the football game. His turn in front of the camera here is great.
  • According to “(Author Thomas Harris) has said in a new introduction to the film’s source novel that the character of terrorist Dahlia Iyad was a precursor and early inspiration for the character of Clarice Starling who appears in his novel of “Silence of the Lambs” as the foil to Hannibal Lecter.”
  • A friend and I liked “Black Sunday” so much that we watched it for five straight showings back in the day when you could sit in a theater through five straight showings.
  • The mid-1970s saw a new generation of weapons and silencers used in films, especially the SIONICS silencers on MAC-10s and Israeli UZIs. “Black Sunday” has this type of weapon and silencers in the Israeli commando raid on the Black September fortress at the start of the film. They were also used two years earlier in Robert Redford’s espionage thriller “Three Days of the Condor” (click here for my review).
  • According to “The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company changed their blimp’s markings from silver-and-black blimps to blue-and-yellow after this movie was made and released.”
  • Kid star Kristy McNichol was to be in the supporting cast, but her scenes were cut.
  • Finally and directly from “Movie cameras used in filming during the Super Bowl game were disguised as TV cameras with CBS logos.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016, 2018.
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