Monday, December 16, 2013

Black Sunday (1977)

When last year's Argo was likened to a great 1970s thriller, John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday is exactly the type of film meant in the comparison. Frankenheimer made a career out of these types of, what we generally label "smart" political adventures, and this ranks with his best. I wouldn't call it a gimmick, but the movie has the same kind of plot piece as Argo does that serves as a great selling point: In Argo it was of course that Tony Mendez was going to make a fake Hollywood movie in order to free the prisoners during the Israeli Hostage Crisis. It's a fascinating idea, and more importantly, a new one. When story after story uses so many recycled plot elements, something this fresh can be a major selling point-especially when it fits so well into advertising. In Black Sunday, the ingenious plot element is that a group of terrorists are planning to use a blimp to drop a bomb on the Super Bowl. The film's original poster even uses this as its selling image. We see a massive blimp making its way over the edge of the stadium as spectators begin to panic. It's a fantastic piece of marketing because it's a poster that actually piques interest without the aid of a movie star (which, to be honest, is just about all posters, at least these days, have going for them). 

The attack isn't meant to destroy America so much as to shake it up and bring its attention to the Palestinian cause in the Middle East. Interestingly, the terrorists might, in a traditional Hollywood sense, be the heroes: Dahlia (Marthe Keller) is a beautiful, young Palestinian operative, and Bruce Dern is her American sidekick Michael, the one who has the blimp license and the gig lined up to fly one over the Big Game. He also has a tortured past as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Upon being freed, he finds his home life shattered and his mental state occupied by feelings of confusion and hatred towards America. They're given lots of attention, as Frankenheimer hones in on their deep inner feelings and the full extent of their motives. Clearly he's trying to shake up the traditional notion of hero and villain, as the "bad guys" here, while in many ways disreputable, are shown as human beings with well-thought out motives. Contrarily, the "hero" is their pursuer, Mossad agent Kabakov, played by the gruff Robert Shaw. He's fairly one-dimensional, marked purely by his driving intensity and determination to bring the terrorists down. And Shaw doesn't make for the best hero either, in part because in many of his best roles he plays pretty excellent villains. 

I don't think Frankenheimer is making any grand political statements by his presentation of these characters. I think he's merely trying to tell a story that seems real and to make the viewer really think about, for a change, what would traditionally be labeled "villainy" and consider the antagonists' motives from a standpoint other than pure calculated evil. That said, the movie ultimately follows convention, as Dahlia and Michael, who for a while are fairly relatable, become more and more distant as they begin to use violence to solve problems. One scene, in which Dahlia disguises herself as a nurse at a hospital and murders Kabakov's assistant and friend, makes her particularly loathing despite her many human qualities. 

The film also relies more on exciting action scenes as it goes along, which is not a bad thing, especially considering how exquisitely they're crafted by Frankenheimer and the great cinematographer John Alonzo. There's a great foot chase that goes through the streets of Miami that climaxes at the ocean that's especially emblematic of great seventies action filmmaking. Needless to say, it's far more exciting than most chases in contemporary action movies. And then of course the climactic blimp scene, which goes on for over half an hour, is one of the most original and thrilling scenes in cinema (its effect is actually somewhat similar to the roof-scaling climax of Safety Last! in that they're both very compact scenes with a central purpose, and because they both get the camera's entire focus because there's no other part of the narrative to cut to. When critics call the climax of Lloyd's film a precursor of the action movie, this must be just what they mean).

So, despite its unusual narrative focus and jumbling of the hero-villain formula, at the end Black Sunday is a pretty traditional thriller, but in the best sort of way. Frankenheimer does not want to shatter formulas, but he does want to shake them up a little, to use a piece of entertainment to open viewers' eyes just a bit. That he combines that with pure craft on the highest scale makes this truly one of the great 70s thrillers, and speaks pretty highly of Argo, as well. So let the poster lure you in. 

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