'Black Sunday' (1977)
One of the very best things about Talking Pictures TV are the selection of underrated films from the 1970s era that they show- and they have certainly come up trumps with the revival of one of the most intelligent and thrilling thrillers of that generation in Black Sunday (1977). Directed by John Frankenheimer, the director of such films as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1966) and the exciting French Connection II (1975), the film is a tricky combination of a political thriller and disaster movie.
Consequently, it struggled at the box office on release- around the same time you had conventional disaster pictures like The Hindenburg (1975), Two Minute Warning (1976) and don’t forget Rollercoaster (1977) in ‘Sensurround’, and the end of that kind of era of filmmaking was upon us. But what mass audiences missed then was a real genuine delight for the serious film enthusiast who want to be thrilled from the head as much as from the heart-and where the movie has something to say about the nature of terrorism, that is as relevant today as it was over 44 years ago.
So, the story of Black Sunday is based on the Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) novel about an Israeli anti-terrorism agent/commando David Kabakov (Robert Shaw – fresh from his success in Jaws (1975)) who is out to prevent a plot by the Black September Palestinian group to bring terror to the shores of the USA. To do this the terrorists use Dahlia Lyad a PLO fanatic to further radicalise a returned and seriously mentally harmed Vietnam POW Michael Lander (a brilliant Bruce Dern) to do their dirty work.
Most of the film’s pulsating 143 minutes follows Lander and Lyad as their launch their horrific plans and Kabakov goes full out to avert them. There are several genuinely breath-taking moments that I had forgotten about it from when I saw it when it was released here in the UK in 1978- and you really stay with the picture despite its length.
Robert Shaw is in brilliant form and apart from his tour-de-force in Jaws and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), I think this is his finest role. He has to gravitate from searching out and hunting down the Black September terrorists to reflecting the price paid in his lifetime of hunting down terrorists and killing them, who then respond by further atrocities, and so it goes on… In that sense it anticipates Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) which also deals with Mossad taking on Black September and philosophies about how terrorism can be dealt with – if at all. Robert Shaw sadly died just 12 months after making Black Sunday at the age of just 51 and the film is a testament to his fine acting abilities.
Bruce Dern as Michael Lander is in some ways a sympathetic character- battled and mentally bruised from years in a Vietnam prison, then losing his family and treated simply as another number to be managed out of conflict, he sets out to bomb people into knowing his pain. In a lot of respects, he is a fore runner of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character (1982-2019) .
As the Black September terrorist, Marthe Keller has the hardest task to portray as Lyad is a truly cold and fanatical person with few redeeming features, who is pulling Lander’s strings all the time to turn him into the fanatical killing machine she and her cause demands. Keller has been underused in her career- having started in things like Funeral in Berlin (1966) but doing most of her work in Europe especially in a series of French and German pictures. She is probably still best known as the girlfriend of the Dustin Hoffman character in Marathon Man (1976).
There is excellent support from a very impressive cast especially from the familiar face and voice of Walter Gotell who appeared in no less than 7 different James Bond films starting with From Russia With Love (1963) to The Living Daylights (1987) although he was at his very best in the greatest Bond film ever The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
Overall Black Sunday holds up extremely well and I regard it as one of the most intelligent and exciting political thrillers made- well worth a second watch!