Black Sunday (1977)

Hey There Blimpy Boy, Flying Through The Sky So Fancy-Free!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Black Sunday is another addition to the “They couldn’t make that nowadays club”. Unsurprisingly in a post 9/11 world, no studio would want to touch a film about a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl, nor would any company or brand want to be associated with it. Yet in 1977, a mainstream film was released about such an attack with cooperation from the National Football League and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company – now I can’t look at a Good Year blimp and not think of Black Sunday. Likewise looking at the film from a political point of view, it’s highly unlikely modern, left-wing Hollywood would make a film which is pro-Zionist and features Palestinians as terrorists. The terror group in Black Sunday is the real-life Black September of whom were behind the 1972 Munich Massacre – this was the basis for the inspiration behind Black Sunday.

Black Sunday was one of several high profile underperformers to be released in 1977 including Sorcerer, Cross of Iron, New York, New York and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. These films may be able to attribute their lack of success at least in part due to the release of Star Wars. Although Black Sunday’s timing was also compromised by another film about terrorism at a football game which was released months earlier in the form of Two Minute Warning starring Charlton Heston – a poor man’s version of Black Sunday. As of writing this review in 2020, Black Sunday can be viewed in high definition online but has yet to receive a Blu-ray release in any region. I can only speculate if corporate or political reasoning has any part to play in this.

Black Sunday is led by a trio of performers at the top of their game. Marthe Keller has a sinister presence as Black September member Dahlia Iyad. The Arab Mata Hari is no more unsettling than during the sequence in a hospital in which she disguises herself as a nurse to poison Israeli agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) in this very Terminator-like scenario. Dahlia is married to the mentally unhinged, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, Michael Lander (Bruce Dern). Lander is s divorcee who doesn’t get to see his children; the background behind Michael and Dahlia’s relationship is never revealed but is fascinating on the surface. There appears to be legitimate heartfelt feeling towards the two yet their bond is ultimately over ideology. Michael romanticizes himself and his wife’s martyrdom and in one scene basks in sheer euphoria with her after they have a successful weapons test which kills an innocent bystander – a disturbing look into the mind of a terrorist.

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Through Michael, Black Sunday also comments on the treatment of Vietnam veterans back home. In one scene Michael is not treated with respect by the rude receptionist at the Veterans Administration Hospital and made to wait amongst a crowded waiting area before seeing a psychiatrist. Yet during the film, he is still seen wearing his military uniform and taking pride in the medals he earned even though he plans to commit terror against the United States. When he flies the blimp prior to the execution of the terror plot, you can see the pain on his face as the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the stadium.

Rounding out this trio is Robert Shaw as the total mad lad Major David Kabakov – an Israeli counter-terrorist agent and all-round unethical badass. A Dirty Harry type who play by the FBI’s rules (“In your own operational circle in Israel, I understand behind your own back they call you The Final Solution. A man who takes things to their ultimate conclusion and beyond ”). At the beginning of Black Sunday, Kabakov had the opportunity to kill Dahlia but allows her to live. Why doesn’t he kill Dahlia when he had the chance just 15 minutes into the movie? Well aside from the fact that the movie would have ended, Kabakov comes to regret this action and reject the notion of seeing both sides of the question (“The trouble is, Dave, you’ve come to see both sides of the question”). Also notice that he has a concentration camp tattoo on his arm which can be seen as he sits in the hospital bed – Kabakov being a Holocaust survivor goes unmentioned throughout the film.

The Long Beach boat chase and the Miami chase sequence are an appetizer to what comes later (despite some dubious sped up shots during the boat chase). Once the film reaches its final act on the Super Bowl date of January 9th, the final 40 minutes of Black Sunday is some of the most exhilarating action I’ve ever seen in a movie. Featuring chases on foot, car and then by helicopter, the phrase “Edge of your seat” doesn’t do it justice. The film’s advertising including the poser and the trailer (which is classic trailer fashion summarizes the entire plot of the film) focuses on the end of the film as the blimp reaches the audience at the football stadium, leaving the viewer to wonder how we get to that point and what happens next? The film never actually outlines the planned terror plot until we actually see it in action.

So how did the studio receive permission from Good Year to use their blimps and logo in the film? Director John Frankenheimer had already established good relationship with Good Year head Robert Lane as a result of working with the company in Frankenheimer’s previous film Grand Prix (1966). Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear’s blimps on four conditions: the film had to make clear that the villainous pilot did not work directly for Goodyear, but for a contractor; the final explosion could not come out of the word Goodyear on the blimp’s side as well as the blimp itself not being part of any violence, for example, nobody was to be churned up in its propellers. Lastly, the Good Year logo could not appear on the film’s poster or on any other such marketing materials, hence why the poster and home video releases the blimp simply has the words “Super Bowl” imprinted on its side.

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The grand spectacle of a finale during the Super Bowl X on January 18th, 1976 at the Miami Orange Bowl with the production returning to the same location film additional scenes on January 29th (I wonder how people present reacted to seeing Robert Shaw running about like a madman?). You get a real incoming sense of dread as the large crowds congregate and people are having a good time amongst the appearance of NFL players, coaches, sports announcers and CBS news crews.  Likewise, the President who appears at the Super Bowl in two brief shots resembles then POTUS Jimmy Carter. Carter was sworn into office on January 20th 1977, which means the earliest date if the movie’s timeline would be late 1977 to early 1978 at the earliest (the film indicates it takes place after January 1974). If the film takes place during the 1977 Superbowl then the President should resemble Gerald Ford during his last days in office but it’s only politics geeks like myself who get caught up over this sort of thing.

The score by John Williams is not one of his standout works as there’s no incentive to listen to it after watching the film, although it does succeed in creating suspense and you can hear shades of Star Wars from time to time. Likewise, the editing holds onto certain shots for just long enough not to notice imperfections in the special effects. My only minor criticism would be the very cheesy explosion shot once the blimp finally explodes.

Watching Black Sunday for the first time I was legitimately wondering if the blimp and its attached weapon would cause mass death and destruction and if Kabakov would live or will we get a Hollywood ending in which the day is saved – in the end, we get a bit of both. It’s clear some people are injured and killed once the blimp reaches the stadium but Kabakov being the chad he is, gets that thing away from the crowd and to a safe distance which it explodes, in a manner in which I can’t help but notice parallels the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Some films once they end leave you that exhilarated, you’re dying to just tell someone about it – Black Sunday is one such film.

Fail-Safe (1964)

Fail-Safe or Strangelove? That Is the Question

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Fail-Safe is largely overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove due to both movies being released in the same year. Both films deal with the events leading up to a nuclear strike although Fail-Safe takes a serious approach as opposed to the comedic nature of Dr. Strangelove. I much prefer Fail-Safe which I feel is a considerably more suspenseful film than Dr. Strangelove is a funny film. Fail-Safe examines in step by step detail what could potentially happen if a technical mishap gave pilots on a bomber the order to drop a nuclear bomb, in this case on the city of Moscow. The movie never explains what the technical mishaps was but the rest of the film examines in precise detail the actions which would be carried out if such a thing was too happen; primarily trying to stop the bombers and convincing the Soviets that the oncoming attack is accidental. Although the opening scene at the rodeo seems rather pretentious, Fail-Safe is a no-nonsense, straight to the point wordy drama. Like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe is a film driven by heart-pounding wordy exchanges.

Playing the President of The United States requires an actor with charisma and a commanding screen presence, no surprise that Henry Fonda pulls off the role with the greatest of ease. As a huge Henry Fonda fan, I do delight in seeing him as the most powerful man in the world. Along with James Stewart and Gary Cooper as actors who best embody the everyman, I feel this is one of the best roles of his career, representing the ideal American President (on the surface level at least) I’m sure many wish for (no political party is mentioned) as he tries to remain calm under the most extreme pressure.

Fonda spends almost the entire film in a small room only being accompanied by his Russian language translator Buck (Larry Hagman). This one aspect of the film did have questioning why the President isn’t surrounded by advisers and associates but this one liberty does create a sense of loneliness and claustrophobia with the film’s use of high contrast black and white cinematography also heightens the sense of fear and giving the film a great visual flair in one of the most visually stunning black & white films of the 1960s’s. Hagman’s performance itself is especially impressive as his character translates Russian to English as he listens to it being spoken, talking in a uniquely awkward manner in several sequences throughout the film, the first of which is a single, lengthy uncut shot.

The only other liberty I have to question in Fail-Safe is the failure of the wife of the bomber pilot O’Grady to tell him something only the two of them would know when speaking to him over the radio in an attempted to divert the bomber from destroying Moscow and convince them this isn’t an impression from Soviet spies – Could have at least been worth an attempt in order to avoid World War III.

Comedic actor Walter Matthau shows off his dramatic stripes as the cynical nuclear expert Professor Groeteschele, whom is more concerned with the political and economic aspects of nuclear warfare as opposed to the cost to human life. He is cold hearted and has no sentimental side to him and even gets pleasure making discussions of nuclear war into a piece of sick entertainment as seen at a house party during the beginning of the film. Later he makes very questionable recommendations in an attempt to have communism destroyed when the opportunity arises due to the technical mishap. His final worlds in Fail-Safe are a recommendation to prioritise recovering business records in New York City over the recovery of survivors and the dead as apparently, the economy depends on it. Whether or not this and other actions are justified, Groeteschele is a character who gives off bad vibes throughout the film and appears to enjoy his job a little too much.

The movie contains a disclaimer at the end that the US military has procedures in place to prevent the film’s events from occurring actually occurring but with a character like Matthau’s being a government adviser, I wonder what kind of statement the movie is making. The Congressman Mr. Raskob acts as the audience getaway character, perplexed and terrified of the technology he is being given a tour off at the war room of Strategic Air Command while the military personnel act in a confident manner to the improbability of anything going wrong. I doubt Fail-Safe is going to give any viewers a pro-nuclear mindset and will leave a chill down your spine. I feel nobody does thought-provoking and issue-based films (or issuetainment) as well as Sidney Lumet but none quite as terrifying as Fail-Safe.