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Black Sunday

directed by John Frankenheimer

with Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller, 143 minutes, color, 1977

Cover of VHS tape of movie

Cover of VHS tape of movie

By Carter B. Horsley

Truth may be stranger than fiction but fiction can become truth.

When it was released in 1977, "Black Sunday" was a pretty far-fetched thriller about terrorism. After September 11, 2001, its plausibility was no longer a laughing matter.

Indeed, its plot about terrorists who try to explode an advertising blimp with 220,000 armor-piercing darts in the middle of the playing field of the Super Bowl attended by 82,000 fans including the President of the United States now sends palpable and plausible shivers to an American populace now no longer inured to terror.

Frankenheimer had previously directed "The Manchurian Candidate" (see The City Review article) as well as "Seven Days in May," so it was no surprise that "Black Sunday" would be on the cutting-edge of the dark side of civilization. Doomsday was the late director's forte and the last half of "Black Sunday" is non-stop suspense and action.

As in many adventure/thriller movies, preposterous actions can only be successfully presented by brilliant acting and the stars of "Black Sunday" deliver the goods in spades.

Robert Shaw plays Major David Kabakov, an Israeli anti-terrorist agent. Bruce Dern plays Captain Michael J. Lander, a pilot captured by the Vietcong who calls for a stop to the war while a prisoner-of-war and eventually becomes unstable psychologically on his return to the United States. Marthe Keller plays Dahlia Iyad, a terrorist control agent who wants the United States to suffer for supporting Israel and not the Palestinians.

Captain Lander has contacted a Black September terrorist organization in Beirut and asked for their aid in killing thousands of people who will attend the next Super Bowl. The film begins with Iyad reassuring her leaders in Beirut that she can control Captain Lander and that the plan can be successful. Pleased with their approval, she makes a tape that she plans to have released after the planned event.

Major Kabakov leads a raid against the terrorist group, however, and surprises her in the shower and hesitates and decides not to kill her and she gets away.

She subsequently arranges to have explosives shipped to Captain Lander in the United States and travels there to join him. She plans not only to help him set up the terrorist act but to join him in executing it, which they both know means their death.

Captain Lander has gotten a job as the pilot of an advertising blimp and his plan is to rig an attachment to the bottom of the blimp's gondola and when he is descends into the center of the Super Bowl playing field he plans to set off an explosion that will shoot out the darts into the crowds.

Major Kabakov meanwhile has discovered Iyad's recorded tape message, which clearly indicates a plan to inflict great harm to America and he meets with the F.B.I. and they try to unearth the plan. He regrets his hesitation with the woman now that he realizes she is plotting something extremely sinister and eventually he enlists the help of the Russians in trying to identify her. They cooperate and produce a photograph of her.

Iyad arranges for 600 pounds of explosives to be shipped into the country in religious statues aboard a Japanese freighter. When she and Captain Lander pick up the cargo in a small speedboat, however, the Coast Guard approaches and pursues them only to lose them when they cannot fit under a railroad bridge over which a train is crossing. The chase is exciting but rather contrived.

Captain Lander insists on a test of his "darts" and they fly out to an abandoned warehouse and convince a caretaker that they are prospective buyers wanting to photograph him. He gladly poses for them in front of what he thinks is a very large panoramic camera. Captain Lander and Iyad go outside for a moment and trigger the "camera" to explode. Captain Lander rushes inside and is euphoric. The device has worked perfectly and perforated completely the shed and its caretaker. Iyad wants to get away quickly but he insists that they savor the moment because they will not be able to when the real event takes place.

Mohammad Fasil, played by Bekim Fehmiu, learns that the F.B.I. has obtained Iyad's photograph and he goes to the United States to warn her and call off the mission. She refuses.

When the F.B.I. and Major Kabakov learn of the Coast Guard's incident with two people in a speedboat unloading cargo they investigate and Major Kabakov ruthlessly interrogate the captain. Captain Lander, however, has snuck aboard the freighter and rigged his phone to detonate and the ship's captain is blown up and Major Kabakov injured. When she sees television news of the incident, Iyad poses as a nurse and attempts to kill the major in a hospital, but only succeeds in killing his assistant.

Both she and Captain Lander are very cold-hearted and do not hesitate to kill anyone who might upset their plans.

Major Kabakov and F.B.I. agent Sam Corely, played by Fritz Weaver, track Iyad to a motel where she was meeting with Fasil. When Fasil goes outside, he is spotted and identified by Kabakov who orders the other agents not to shoot because he needs to find out where Iyad is and what her plan is. Fasil, however, spots an agent and grabs a hostage and proceeds to try to escape, killing several people before he is shot.

In his motel room, Major Kabakov finds a brochure for the Super Bowl, which is just a few weeks off and he quickly surmises that that is Iyad's target.

The start of the film is very, very slow moving as the camera tracks Iyad from the back through a market in Beirut. Major Kabakov's raid on a terrorist cell in Beirut is very exciting as is Fasil's attempted escape and shoot-out, but the first half of the film is rather drawn out.

The second half of the film includes footage of a real Super Bowl between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers and is a tour de force of editing and tension as Major Kabakov and agent Corely try to figure out the terrorist's plans and how to thwart them.

Iyad poses as a waitress and kills the designated pilot on the day of the Super Bowl for the television blimp. Captain Lander shows up at the blimp's airport to explain that the other pilot was out too late carousing to make it and that he will substitute. He takes up the blimp, with its television crew and heads for the stadium, but arranges for one of its two engines to overheat and catch fire so that he has to return to the airport.

Iyad, meanwhile, races in a car with the large gondola device in tow, and shows identification to get into the airport. Captain Lander orders the crew to attach it to the gondola and when the ground crew starts to ask questions he opens fire on them and Iyad pulls out an automatic weapon and kills more of them.

Major Kabakov senses that the blimp is the weapon and he and agent Corely, who has been wounded by Iyad, rush off to the airport but Iyad manages to kill several policemen with them and Captain Lander manages to get the blimp into the air on its way back to the stadium.

Major Kabakov and agent Corely commandeer a helicopter that had just landed at a nearby construction site and they give chase along with a police helicopter. Iyad shoots down the police helicopter but Major Kabakov manages to have his helicopter maneuver alongside the gondola and shoots Iyad dead and also wounds Captain Lander just as it is descending down into the stadium.

Captain Lander manages to ignite a back-up fuse for the explosives as the blimp hits a huge light stanchion on the rim of the stadium, setting off a panic among the fans.

Major Kabakov tells his helicopter pilot to lower him on a cable to the top of the descending blimp and attempts to attach the cable to the blimp to try to tow it away from the stadium....

Considering when it was made, the blimp's descent into the stadium is quite well done, as far as special effects then went.

The actual plan to kill the other blimp pilot, barge into the blimp airport, force a crew to attach the large device is fraught with danger and highly improbable as is the convenient commandeering of a helicopter by Major Kabakov. Yet so convincingly ruthless and determined have Captain Lander and Iyad been portrayed by Dern and Keller and so driven by guilt has Major Kabakov been portrayed by Shaw that the inconsistencies of the plot notwithstanding the end of the moving is very thrilling and terrifying.

The movie was made from a book by Thomas Harris, who would also write "The Silence of the Lambs." In the book, Major Kabakov does not survive, but in the movie he does.

Although Shaw is the hero, and very, very good, as always, the movie's credibility hinges on the performances of Dern and Keller and they are unforgettable. Dern is deranged and disguntled, excitable and explosive. Keller is icy and unflappable and while she is extremely beautiful she is also extremely formidable. She clearly could seduce anyone. They are a very scary duo.

When it was released, the film was a wild thriller.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2003, it is a very chilling tale resonant with the horrific anger of terrorists who believe absolutely in their cause.

With such enemies, complacency and caution fade.

Years after the movie was made but a few years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one of Tom Clancy's novels has an airliner crash into the Capitol in Washington.

Fiction can be frightening.

Click her to order this film on DVD from amazon.com for 10 percent off its list price of $19.99

This film is ranked 45th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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