Black Sunday (1977 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Frankenheimer|
|Produced by||Robert Evans|
|Screenplay by||Ernest Lehman|
|Based on||Black Sunday|
by Thomas Harris
|Music by||John Williams|
|Cinematography||John A. Alonzo|
|Edited by||Tom Rolf|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$15.8 million|
Black Sunday is a 1977 American thriller film directed by John Frankenheimer, based on Thomas Harris' novel of the same name. The film was produced by Robert Evans, and stars Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, and Marthe Keller. It was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture in 1978. The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, and Ivan Moffat. Ross had previously written the screenplay for The Day of the Jackal, a similar plot-driven political thriller.
The inspiration of the story came from the Munich massacre, perpetrated by the Black September organization against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics, giving both the novel and film its title.
Michael Lander is a pilot who flies the Goodyear Blimp over National Football League games to film them for network television. Secretly deranged by years of torture as a POW in the Vietnam War, he had a bitter court martial on his return and a failed marriage. He longs to commit suicide and to take with him as many as possible of the cheerful, carefree U.S. civilians he sees from his blimp each weekend.
Lander is desperately in love with Dahlia Iyad, an operative from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, who controls and manipulates him. They conspire together to launch a suicide attack using a bomb composed of plastique and a quarter-million steel flechettes, housed on the underside of the gondola of the blimp, which they will detonate over the Miami Orange Bowl during Super Bowl X. Dahlia and Black September, in turn, intend the attack as a wake-up call for the American people, to turn their attention and the world's to the plight of the Palestinians.
American and Israeli intelligence, led by Mossad agent David Kabakov and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Sam Corley, learn that a mass-terror attack is planned, from a recorded message which Kabakov captures in a raid on a Black September unit in the Middle East. They race to learn the details and ultimately piece together the path of the explosives into the country, and Iyad's own movements.
The bomb-carrying blimp is chased by police helicopters as it approaches the stadium. Kabakov kills Lander and Iyad, but not before Lander lights the fuse to the blimp's bomb. Kabakov lowers himself from the helicopter to the blimp, hooks it up, and hauls it out of the stadium and over the ocean, where it blows up.
As appearing in Black Sunday (main roles and screen credits identified):
- Robert Shaw as Major David Kabakov
- Bruce Dern as Michael Lander
- Marthe Keller as Dahlia Iyad
- Fritz Weaver as Sam Corley
- Steven Keats as Robert Moshevsky
- Bekim Fehmiu as Mohammed Fasil
- Michael V. Gazzo as Muzi
- William Daniels as Harold Pugh
- Walter Gotell as Colonel Riat
- Victor Campos as Nageeb
- Joe Robbie as Himself
- Robert Wussler as Himself
- Pat Summerall as Himself
- Tom Brookshier as Himself
- Walter Brooke as Fowler
- James Jeter as Watchman
- Clyde Kusatsu as Freighter Captain
- Tom McFadden as Farley
- Robert Patten as Vickers
- Than Wyenn as Israeli Ambassador
The film was produced by former Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans. He had earlier produced Chinatown (1974) and Marathon Man (1976). Director John Frankenheimer's frequent line producer Robert L. Rosen was credited as executive producer.
As it hinged on filming a real Goodyear Blimp at a real Super Bowl, many challenges existed. Luckily, Frankenheimer had a good relationship with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company head Robert Lane, as a result of working with Goodyear on his earlier film Grand Prix. Lane told Frankenheimer, “You're the only person I've ever worked with who has kept his word.” Frankenheimer told Goodyear that if they declined the use of their blimps, he would rent the only other large blimp in the world from Germany, paint it silver, and people would assume it was theirs anyway. Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear's blimps on three 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; and the blimp itself could not be part of any violence, for example nobody was to be churned up in its propellers.
Evans helped secure the unprecedented cooperation of the National Football League and the production was allowed to film at Super Bowl X on January 18, 1976 and shoot extensive footage with the principal actors for the film's final half hour as the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17.
The production returned to the Miami Orange Bowl the week of January 29, 1976, to film the final moments of the pursuit, as the blimp crashes into the stadium. A mockup nose section of the blimp was recreated. The thousands of extras needed for this footage, which obviously could not be shot during the real Super Bowl, were instead provided by the United Way charity, in exchange for Frankenheimer directing a promotional film for them, narrated by Shaw. Members of the Miami Dolphins were hired and outfitted with Cowboys and Steelers uniforms to appear in the footage as well. During filming of the chaotic scenes of panic as the blimp descends into the crowds, Dolphins player Barry Hill fell and injured himself, requiring a splint and a bandage on his right hand.
Goodyear granted the film use of all three of its U.S.-based blimps for Black Sunday. The blimps were flown by company pilots, Nick Nicolary and Corky Belanger Sr., among the five pilots who were involved in the production. The landing and hijacking scenes were photographed at the Goodyear airship base in Carson, California with the Columbia (N3A). A short scene was filmed at the Spring, Texas base with the America (N10A). The extensive Miami, Florida Super Bowl scenes were filmed with the Mayflower (N1A), which was then based on Watson Island across the Port of Miami.
While Goodyear allowed the use of their airship fleet in the film, they did not allow the "Goodyear Wingfoot" logo (prominently featured on the side of the blimp) to be used in any advertising or the poster for the film. Thus, the words "Super Bowl" are featured in place of the logo on the blimp in all advertising collateral.
The film's score was composed by John Williams. In January 2010, Film Score Monthly issued a limited edition of 10,000 copies of the previously unreleased soundtrack, remixed from the original masters.
Black Sunday was among the highest-scoring films ever in the history of Paramount Pictures test screenings, and was widely predicted in the industry as a "second Jaws". When it was released in March 1977, however, the film performed well below expectations.
John Frankenheimer later said the film was hurt by the fact another movie about terrorism at a championship football game, Two-Minute Warning, had come out just beforehand and performed poorly. He also blamed the fact the movie was banned in Germany and Japan.
Still, it became regarded by some as one of Frankenheimer's best thrillers. Although receiving generally favorable critical reviews, Black Sunday was appreciated more for its technical virtues and storyline than its character development. Reviewer Vincent Canby from The New York Times tried to rationalize his reaction: "I suspect it has to do with the constant awareness that the story is more important than anybody in it ... The characters don't motivate the drama in any real way. In a later review, Christopher Null took exception and identified the one key character who drove the plot: "... Black Sunday is distinguished by its unique focus not on the hero but on the villain: Bruce Dern ..."  John Simon said that Black Sunday "is one of those films that are perfectly enjoyable to watch but which there is not all that much to say". Simon did praise the acting of Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Fritz Weaver, Michael V. Gazzo, William Daniels, Steven Keats and Walter Gotell, but said Marthe Keller lacked power and had no charisma.
The film currently holds a 68% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 25 reviews.
Quentin Tarantino has said in interviews that the sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 1 where Daryl Hannah attempts to kill The Bride in disguise as a nurse is an homage to a similar sequence in Black Sunday. More specifically, he said the fact that the sequence in his film is done with split-screens is actually an homage to the trailer for Black Sunday, which shows shots from the sequence in that manner, unlike in the actual film.
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