Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver, Bekim Fehmiu
Director: John Frankenheimer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: None
Length: 143 Minutes
Release Date: October 14, 2003

ďWe deserve this moment, sweetheart. Donít you understand something? When we set off the big one, weíre both going with it.Ē

Film ***1/2

When Black Sunday was initially released back in 1977, it was quite harmless to make a film about a deadly terrorist threat, no matter how realistic the plot scenario is or could be. If anything, it was most common in the 70s to see a film of this type since a good many of films from that time period carried some sort of political statement. I first saw the film when it aired on network television about seven years ago, and I remember it being something of a chilling experience.

However, watching a movie like Black Sunday in the aftermath of such recent terrorist attacks around the world, especially that of 9/11, itís a much more thought-provoking experience because you simply canít help but think that such a similar situation struck our nation not too long ago. Whether that is the case or not, thereís still no denying that this is a superb and well executed thriller which ticks like a well devised time bomb.

Based on the best selling novel by Thomas Harris, the same author who penned the Hannibal Lecter series, and directed by suspense movie vet John Frankenheimer, Black Sunday is quite a unique experience of an action thriller. Its main strength is its pacing of the story, which moves like a pure page turner, which Iím sure the novel really was. The story cuts to many different locations, each labeled specifically along with a date, giving you the feeling that the elements will add up to a huge payoff in the end.

The movie centers on an extremist group known as Black September, a group sorely dedicated to their cause. In response to the American government giving aid to the Israeli people, Black September plots a deadly strike at American soil. The attack involves a plastic explosive device containing thousands of steel darts. The device will be attached to a Goodyear blimp, and the planned attack is to take place during the Super Bowl.

The extremist group is headed by Dahlia (Marthe Keller), who has recruited and become lovers with Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), a deranged ex-soldier whose psyche was tortured by his experience in Vietnam. Lander is also the pilot of the Goodyear blimp which will be hovering over the Super Bowl, along with the explosive device he created himself. The intended targets of this vicious attack are a near 80,000 innocent civilians in attendance, including the President.

However, the plot isnít entirely a secret. Hot on the trail of the mysterious terrorists is Kabakov (Robert Shaw) an Israeli-anti terrorist agent who discovers the plot of the attack through a tape recording comes into his possession. The tape, which was supposed to be released in the aftermath of the attack, includes a womanís voice, which is the only lead Kabakov has. So he and his team must race against to clock to locate Black September before itís too late.

What separates Black Sunday from other movies about terrorist activity is that for once, the terrorists arenít portrayed as one-dimensional characters, but as real people who happen to be soulless as a part of their cause. This point is made during a gut wrenching scene where Lander and Dahlia test the explosive device in the Mojave Desert, while posing as photographers to an unsuspecting farmer. The two set the device up, insist that the man pose for a picture, and then detonate the entire barn. Following this, Lander is filled with absolute joy as he studies the design of the penetration made by the darts throughout the barn. The most scary aspect of this scene is that as Lander is joyful about his explosive creation, neither he nor Dahlia even mention, or take notice of the innocent man theyíve just killed.

And then thereís the showstopping climax at the Super Bowl, which is given a superb amount of buildup until the attack plot starts to move into motion. This sequence epitomizes nailbiting suspense, as Kabakov chases down the blimp in a helicopter as it veers into the Super Bowl relentlessly. Watching this sequence in this particular time is genuinely frightening, but I guess thatís part of the feel the movie is supposed to induce. It tells us that anyone, anywhere in the world can plot any kind of deadly attack to take place when you would least expect it. In last yearís thriller, The Sum of All Fears, a similar deadly threat was administered during a football game, but with way more harsh results.

John Frankenheimer was a master at generating suspense in his movies, and Black Sunday remains one of  the late great directorís finest achievements. Part of the credit must go way of the cast, especially Bruce Dern who delivers a performance that borders on both emotionally frightening and eerily realistic. It plays extremely well as both a provocative political thriller and a lavish action thriller, not leaving the viewer a single second behind.

Video ***

For a film from the 70s, Paramount has done a most impressive job in converting this print to the digital format. Though it carries a couple of expected instances of softness, the anamorphic presentation is for the most part a glorious look, providing a good hint of detail in the film, which moves from setting to setting, as accustomed for an international thriller. Picture quality is clear and sharp as can possibly be. A wonderfully impressive look of a disc.

Audio ***

Likewise, the remastered 5.1 channel mix ushers a rare performance from a movie with such age to it. The many elaborate set pieces allow some nice sound pick up, particularly that of crowded areas. The climax at the Super Bowl is without a doubt the high point of the presentation. The music score is by no less than John Williams, which should alone indicate how the playback of the music is. High marks, indeed.

Features (Zero Stars)



Though it may be difficult for some to watch nowadays, John Frankenheimerís Black Sunday remains a chilling and completely effective thriller to this day. Tight direction and strong performances help to elevate it above the usual action thriller.