Full disclosure: Even though I recognize its many flaws, I love this movie for its ambition, intelligence, and toughness—and especially for costar Bruce Dern’s searing performance. Black Sunday is bleak, long, and outlandish, but whenever I watch the picture, I perceive those qualities as strengths rather than weaknesses.
Based on an early novel by Thomas Harris, who later created Hannibal Lecter and wrote the various books about the cannibalistic shrink’s exploits, Black Sunday is an old-school terrorism thriller. When a Palestinian extremist named Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller) surfaces on the radar of merciless Mossad agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw), David methodically tracks her down to the U.S. and joins forces with an FBI agent, Sam Corley (Fritz Weaver), to identify her plan and stop her. It turns out Dahlia has recruited a PTSD-stricken Vietnam vet, American pilot Michael Lander (Dern), to fly the Goodyear Blimp into a Miami stadium during the Super Bowl, where Dahlia will activate explosives inside the blimp and send thousands of steel darts flying into the crowd.
John Frankenheimer, a seasoned pro at tightly coiled action stories, directs the film in an expansive style, taking equal care with intimate scenes of Dahlia manipulating Michael’s fragile psyche and big-canvas action sequences. What makes Black Sunday unique, however, is its sensitive exploration of Michael’s mental state—despite being neither the film’s hero nor its villain, Michael is by far the picture’s most developed character, and this peculiar storytelling choice delivers fascinating results. As the story progresses, we learn that David (the Mossad agent) is a cold-blooded hunter for whom the ends justify the means. Dahlia, meanwhile, is a kind of psychic counterpoint to David, and the biggest distinction between them is Dahlia’s willingness to kill bystanders for dramatic effect. Therefore, the conflict between these characters is a draw, morally speaking.
Caught between them, literally and metaphorically, is Michael, a haunted man who endured torture as a prisoner of war, only to return home to an ungrateful society. Even when Michael is carefully preparing explosives, he acts more like an artist than a potential mass murderer; we feel his suffocating angst and wish for him to escape Dahlia’s destructive influence. Dern soars in this movie, adding dimension upon dimension to a role that’s perfectly suited to his offbeat gifts.
Keller is good, too, presenting a creepy sort of sociopathic sensuality, and Shaw, though regularly upstaged by Dern and Keller, has many vivid moments. His is not, however, a true leading man’s performance—his characterization is far too cruel for that. Adding greatly to the movie’s appeal is a robust score by John Williams, which jacks up the tension, and muscular cinematography by John A. Alonzo. Black Sunday goes overboard during the finale, during which the laws of physics take a beating and during which iffy special effects dull the film’s impact, but even with its goofy denouement, Black Sunday is a popcorn flick executed with a rare level of craftsmanship behind and in front of the camera.
Black Sunday: RIGHT ON