Paramount // 1976 // 143 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mark Van Hook (Retired) // November 10th, 2003
"You know, for 30 years I have been killing and murdering. What have I achieved? Same world, same wars, same enemies, same friends. And same victims." -- David Kabokov
When most people think of Thomas Harris' novels, they think of Hannibal Lecter, a character who has changed our perception of movie horror for years since his appearance in The Silence Of The Lambs. But in 1976, director John Frankenheimer adapted another of Harris' books, Black Sunday, into a riveting spy thriller that brought to light a new kind of monster that resonates all the more clearly in today's post-9/11 climate: international terrorists.
When psychotic Vietnam veteran Mike Lander (Bruce Dern) teams up with a member (Marthe Keller) of Palestinian terrorist organization Black September to detonate a bomb at the Super Bowl, Israeli agent David Kabokov (Robert Shaw) is caught in a race against the clock to avert a potential international catastrophe. As the day of the big game draws closer, Kabokov finds himself faced with the most terrifying of all villains, the kind that kill in the name of a cause, even if it means giving up their own lives in the process.
When it was released in 1976, Black Sunday must have played as a fascinating what-if parable that people probably looked at with a calm sort of detachment. I can imagine someone at the time watching the film and saying, "That was a good movie, but it couldn't really happen, could it?"
Well, now it has happened, and in the wake of 9/11, the film now takes on a frightening new meaning. Though the chief villain isn't actually an Islamic fundamentalist, the movie provides a stirring portrait of people who are willing to do anything to further their cause, even if it means taking 80,000 lives in the process. Isn't it ironic, then, that a film that probably seemed dated back in 2000 now feels timely and relevant again only three years later?
But whatever its historical implications, Black Sunday still plays as absorbing, if not altogether plausible, entertainment, thanks chiefly to a taut script by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, and Ivan Moffat and the riveting direction of the late, great John Frankenheimer. In 1976, having already directed the groundbreaking spy thrillers The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May back in the 1960s, Frankenheimer knew just how to wring the right amount of tension out of the film's premise, and in doing so crafted a story that, while not exactly as ahead of its time as those previous classics, only added to his stature as one of the genre's great fosterers.
The rest of the movie plays as a veritable who's who of '60s and '70s filmmaking. It was produced by legendary mogul Robert Evans (The Godfather, Love Story), features an early score by the then-already-great John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars) and features two of the 1970s great forgotten stars, Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern.
Shaw and Dern create a fascinating dynamic of two men who could be a mirror image of each other, who have both been scarred by the effects of war and are sick of the idea of it, but who use their knowledge for different purposes. Lander is a former POW who was captured and tortured for six years, only to return home to a court-martial and a divorce. Kabokov, on the other hand, has been a witness to the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for too many years, has killed many men, and no longer understands why. For all the lives he has ended and has seen ended (including those of his two sons), nothing ever seems to change.
It is this parallel that gives Black Sunday its narrative momentum, and Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension for all it's worth, but the film loses steam towards the end and climaxes with an utterly implausible air chase, complete with special effects that must have seemed laughable even back in 1976. This is a shame, because up until this point Black Sunday is a superior action thriller that feels all the more relevant in today's post-9/11 atmosphere. If Evans and Frankenheimer hadn't gotten too greedy and pushed for such a flashy ending, this might have been an all-time genre classic. Instead, it ends up being a merely good film.
Paramount's video presentation of Black Sunday is exceptional, thanks to a solid 2:35:1 anamorphic transfer taken from an attractive source print. The print is in great shape, and is virtually dirt free, with excellent color saturation and shadow detail. There's very little artifacting, and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum.
On the audio front, the studio has seen fit to include a perfectly acceptable Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix that makes good use of the sound field. Two mono tracks are also included, one English and one French. English subtitles are included for the hearing-impaired.
While the video and audio presentation of Black Sunday is superb, that's pretty much all you get. There's nary an extra to be found on the disc, not even a trailer. One would think that given today's post-9/11 climate, now would be the perfect time to place the film in a modern context with a new documentary, but Paramount unfortunately misses such an opportunity and instead provides us with a bare-bones offering. A real shame.
Fans of spy films and thrillers like the recent 24 TV series will find much to enjoy in Black Sunday, though it may hit a bit too close to home for some. Terrific performances and taut direction from director John Frankenheimer make for a riveting thriller that only degenerates in its climax. For a list price of $19.99, it would've been nice if Paramount had thought to at least include a trailer, but otherwise this is a good DVD presentation of a satisfying picture.
All involved with the film are free to go, but Paramount is once again found guilty of skimping on the extras. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2003 Mark Van Hook; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 143 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R