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.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Communists, Communists Everywhere!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Manchurian Candidate is one of few films to really portray communism as a sinister force, compared to many other films which even if they don’t portray communism in a favourable light, they fail to go the whole hog. In the director’s commentary for The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer states the film is a response to Joseph McCarthy but goes into no details regarding this or any of the political themes present in the film but rather talking about the technical aspects of the film. With all due respect to the highly talented director, this leads me to believe he is not fully aware or interested in the thematic significance of this film he directed.

From one angle it appears The Manchurian Candidate, whether intentionally or not is a validation of McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist. The Manchurian Candidate shows communism infiltrating the higher echelons of US society, all the way up to brainwashing a candidate for the US Presidency and his wife while at the same time making anti-communists look like a bunch of paranoid loons. However, one of the major characters in the film, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) is a cartoon-like version of Joseph McCarthy – a puppet of his wife Eleanor Iselin Is of whom is secretly a communist infiltrator (as revealed in a twist near the film’s end) passing as a rabid anti-communist. Not the brightest tool in the shed, Senator Iselin keeps giving the media different numbers on how many communists are in the Defence Department and eventually settles on 57 – being the only number he can remember in a clever reference to Heinz tomato ketchup. At the end of the day, it appears The Manchurian Candidate is trying to have its cake and eat it too in taking down both communism and McCarthyism all at once.

Well in the interest of advancing an agenda one is hamstrung by the fact that the communists in the film are using methods which are science fiction as brainwashing (mind control) does not actually exist in the real world. As Jon Mixon of Slate.com sums it up:

There is no scientific proof that brainwashing (a theoretical form of mind control) exists or is even possible. The term itself is no longer used by mental health professionals (well, reputable professionals, that is), and no peer-reviewed experiments or studies have been done that demonstrate that it is even possible.

Terrorist groups, cults, religions, and others seeking to influence people often look for those experiencing personal or professional setbacks and offer them sources of comfort, financial or moral support, or (at first) a nonjudgmental audience that will listen to their problems. As the person grows closer to the group, he becomes aware that to remain in the group he has to align his public statements, words, and actions with those of group. If he doesn’t, then he is ostracized from the group or increased pressure is placed upon him to do so.

Many people don’t do this and leave the group entirely. Some remain with the group and mimic the necessary public displays, words, and actions but don’t really believe the group’s core message. A relatively small number of people do believe the message, and they make up the backbone of the organization. They aren’t “brainwashed”—they simply chose to believe that the group meets most or all of their wants and needs.

Protagonist Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) does not fall under that category but really is an individual who’s mind has been put under the control of others, making The Manchurian Candidate is a borderline science fiction movie. That said, if brainwashing was real is there any reason to believe The Soviet Union of Mao’s China would have not taken advantage of it? You can decide.

It’s Angela Lansbury who steals the show as quintessential highly controlling, domineering mother Eleanor Iselin, who has a tendency to call anyone she disagrees with a communist, even when they are a Republican (rings a bell in the modern-day culture war). The movie doesn’t state if the Iselin’s are Republicans or Democrats. The regular appearance of bust and portraits of Abraham Lincoln in their home as well as people (including Mr Iselin) dressed as Honest Abe at their party may hint to them being Republicans. However, there did exist a conservative, anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party back then so their party allegiance could go either way.

Laurence Harvey is an actor with a real dignified aura to him (and in comparison to Sinatra, it’s clear who the superior actor is). Raymond Shaw is real a snob and sour puss, “not loveable” as he memorably describes himself. He even almost turns into Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when becoming drunk and ranting about Christmas with his mid-Atlantic accent. Likewise, I feel the casting of Janet Leigh as Sinatra’s love interest Eugénie Rose Chaney to be a determent to the film, not out of any wrongdoing by the actress, but for a minor part which only has a small bearing on the plot, having a major actress cast in the part comes off a waste. Angela Lansbury and even the portly, comic-looking John McGiver play roles of far greater significance yet are billed lower – an unknown actress would have been better suited to the role. The Manchurian Candidate is also one of the earliest films to feature black actors in which their race has no bearing on the plot with the desegregated military present in the film and James Edwards in the small but memorable role of Cpl. Allen Melvin.

Frankenheimer directed some of the most visually striking black & white films ever made with Lionel Lindon providing the cinematography for The Manchurian Candidate. Those dreams sequences are a master class in editing and set design (not to mention the unease that comes from having a gun directly pointed at the audience). Also observe how the murder of Mr Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), is very similar to the murder of Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. The scenes from both movies take place at night in the victim’s bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both are wearing a robe, have a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds and both are about to be murdered. I can only guess this scene really stood out for Ridley Scott.

The Manchurian Candidate is fascinating if imperfect political thriller. One has to suspend their disbelief when watching the film, no more so than when Shaw just happens to be in a bar when the bartender in a conversation with patrons just happens to say the trigger phrase “play a little solitaire” – a remarkable coincidence to say the least. The film’s climax is the blueprint for the political, conspiracy thriller in which a sniper plans to take out a candidate in a convention arena amongst all the electioneering apparel and giant posters and the candidates, and all this one year before the untimely demise of JFK.

Seven Days In May (1964)

Olympus Has Fallen

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Seven Days In May is a film which tapped into cold war paranoia but still has relevance for today’s increasingly unstable political world. Now that we have arrived in the age of Trump and many people would shockingly actually like the premise of this high concept political thriller to play out successfully in real life, what better time to revisit Seven Day In May. A military coup in the United States? This is the kind of thing that happens in banana republics, not in the most powerful nation on Earth. The fantastical set up is the appeal of a movie like this; the idea that the so-called haven of democracy could potentially crumble. The big question though; could it happen in real life? Are the events in the movie plausible? To the laymen viewer, they are at least.

Seven Days In May has some powerhouse actors with serious charisma talking some serious politics; no action, just heart-pounding wordy exchanges. General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is a believer in a nuclear deterrent and doesn’t trust the Russians to hold their side of the deal. Is he someone who has a genuine concern or is he a megalomaniac taking advantage of a situation or both? The pairing Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas couldn’t be a better combo as military personnel with a mutual respect for each other. Their relationship is where much of the film’s emotion is drawn from with Douglas looking up to Lancaster and his eventual betrayal of him. Ava Gardner on the other and is the weakest link in an otherwise stellar cast. I’ve never thought much of her as an actress and this comes through here with a performance which is serviceable not much more.

The scene in which Kirk Douglas is pitched with the task of explaining to the President there may be a military coup to overthrow his administration is one of the best examples of expository delivery I’ve ever seen. I believe there are two reasons for this; firstly Kirk Douglas’ sheer screen presence and charisma and secondly, the tension is drawn from him embarrassing himself while trying to explain such a fantastical military coup. He delivers the lengthy monologue nervous and under pressure but while still remaining dignified. Plus that camera zoom and head tilt when he summarises his monologue makes the hairs stand up.

John Frankenheimer is one of the most visually striking directors in black & white with his use of shades of tones, he has a very striking style. The Saul Bass-style opening credits on the other hand show why the 1960’s was a golden age for title sequences as Hollywood attempted to draw audiences away from the TV and into the theatre.

Fredric March makes for a convincing leader as President Jordan Lynman. He is not a Trumpain figure, no he’s far humbler than that. His course of action over the last year bordered on criminal negligence, or at least according to General Scott. He has a 29% approval rating and the public has voiced “a universal rejection of your entire political philosophy” according to Gallop poll; he is a man who is not upholding his democratic mandate. Should there still be a respect for the office of the president if the country is against him? What’s more important, protecting a country against its government or loyalty to the constitution? The viewer is left to make up their own mind and the movie does not take sides. We never know the political ideology of any of the characters; the words republican, democrat, conservative or liberal is never mentioned. Seven Days In May is a movie with no clear-cut hero or villain; both sides believe what they are doing is for the best of America and by extension the world. By the end the answer as to who Judas is not so black and white (“Yes I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform”).

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience – the story of a man who’s able to lead a meaning and productive existence despite serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. A man who is able to create an empire of bird keeping and aviary research within the solitary confinement quarters of a prison. When I first watched Birdman of Alcatraz I only vaguely knew about the story of Robert Stoud and thus I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be as he MacGvyers the little he has at his disposal to create a grand sanctuary. I don’t know what it’s like to be isolated in a confined area for days on end but I suspect this movie may provide the closest feeling I could ever get to it; black & white cinematography and claustrophobic prison cells go hand in hand not to mention the daunting narration by Edmund O’Brien creates an ongoing sense of foreboding.

Birdman of Alcatraz made me a fan of Burt Lancaster. It was not the first film I had seen him in but it was the first at which I was struck at what an immense powerhouse of an actor he is, carrying a two and a half-hour long, mostly single location picture. His portrayal of Robert Stroud is the classic characterisation of tough on the outside, soft on the inside. A heartless monster who learns the value of humanity and cares for a creature as delicate and feminine as a bird. It’s a dichotomy that can come off as very corny but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents it from coming off like this. Stroud’s relationship with his mother (Thelma Ritter) even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex. Yet just as compelling is the relationship between Stroud and the warden played by Karl Malden, which I feel is summed up with one line (and one of my favourite movie quotes), “That convict has been a thorn in my side for 35 years but I’ll give him one thing, he never lied to me.”

Birdman of Alcatraz is a tale of rehabilitation with a clear anti-death penalty message. Early in the film when Stroud’s mother speaks to First Lady Edith Wilson, she speaks of how she believes the current President doesn’t believe in the barbarity of “eye for an eye”. Due to Stroud’s pardon, the stone-cold killer went on to achieve great things in the field of aviary research and discovering cures for various aviary diseases. Later in the film, Stroud’s birds are taken away from him and he is unable to engage in commercial enterprise following rules from the newly established Federal Bureau of Prisons. The pain of seeing the one thing giving Stroud meaning in his life being taken away from him when he’s transferred to Alcatraz is unbearable viewing.

Like many biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz receives criticism with the historical liberties taken; most prominently in this instance the fact that the real Robert Stroud was reportedly an incredibly unpleasant individual. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: Movies are not documentaries. When adapting a real-life story to the screen, changes and liberties are likely going to be made for the sake of storytelling and entertainment; would a story closer to the truth have been more interesting? My second rebuttal to the ‘not historically accurate’ criticism is that how many people would even be aware of certain historical figures if it wasn’t for their film biopics; movies can act as a gateway to learning about history. After watching Birdman of Alcatraz I wanted to read about the real Robert Stroud, otherwise, I might not have even heard of the man.