Not to be confused with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), this cracking suspense thriller is based on a novel by Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Inspired by the terrorist attacks during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Harris posits a scenario whereby members of the Black September organization, including femme fatale Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller), recruit crazed Vietnam-veteran air pilot Michael Lander (Bruce Dern) to stage an atrocity on American shores. Hot on their trail are dogged Mossad agent Major David Kabokov (Robert Shaw) and his C.I.A. counterpart Sam Corley (Fritz Weaver). Their globe-hopping pursuit culminates in a thrilling finale where Lander and Dahlia hijack the Goodyear Blimp with the intention of dropping explosives amidst the Superbowl, killing thousands of spectators including the President of the United States.
One of the most nail-biting thrillers of its era, Black Sunday deviates from Harris’ novel in a few areas that betoken the presence of Ernest Lehman, writer of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), among its screenwriters. John Frankenheimer’s taut direction lends a spellbinding authenticity to proceedings, with edge-of-your-seat set-pieces (Dahlia’s attempt to assassinate an injured Kabokov in hospital; the violent pursuit of a terrorist cell leader across the streets of Miami) emboldened by hand-held cameras and his masterful use of the anamorphic widescreen frame. All the more impressive given his oft-expressed disdain for the format. After his groundbreaking work in the Sixties, Frankenheimer endured a long period of critical and box-office failures before French Connection II (1975) restored his reputation. Black Sunday was superior to his previous for-hire assignment and a worthy follow-up for producer Robert Evans, then-basking in the glory of Marathon Man (1976) which also featured Marthe Keller, a multitalented actress who now works in opera.
Although the film risks reducing the Palestinian conflict to a clear-cut good guys versus bad guys shoot ’em up, the screenwriters go some way towards upholding Harris’ faceted characterisations. The night before their attack, the terrorists sit weeping in their hotel room, while at other times come across equally vulnerable and regretful as ruthless. Crazy Vietnam veterans may have been Bruce Dern’s stock in trade, but the film allows us to empathise with Lander’s frustrations and anxieties, born from his betrayal by wife and country. His almost childish need to prove his “heroism” to Dahlia is balanced with psychotic cruelty, as when after their field test of the explosive device claims the life of a clueless victim (a sequence played for near-unbearably queasy black comedy), he lingers to admire the patterns bullet holes along the walls.
Despite playing a Palestinian terrorist with a strong Swiss-German accent (which the script covers by stressing her European upbringing), Marthe Keller gives a ferocious performance as the most ruthless conspirator. For all her homicidal mania, things are never entirely black and white as Kabokov discovers via an encounter with his Palestinian opposite number (Walter Gotell). Dahlia’s family were raped and slaughtered during the 1966 war (“Take a good look at her, Major Kabokov. In a way she is your creation”). Underscoring this Hitchcockian duality is the simultaneously charismatic and world-weary hero essayed by Robert Shaw. Having lost his parents, wife and sons to the Holocaust, Kabokov pursues the enemies of Israel with fiery zeal, earning himself the deliberately goading nickname of “the final solution.” Yet, increasingly sympathetic to the opposing side, he has grown weary of killing and winningly, stresses to Gotell’s character that an attack upon innocent parties would mean a moral defeat for both sides.
But of course it’s the Superbowl finale where Frankenheimer really shines. Staged amidst a real football game, supposedly Superbowl X, at the Miami Orange Bowl, its scale and pageantry floods the widescreen frame, increasing the tension tenfold. Frankenheimer himself lamented the lacklustre explosive effects but they’re far from detrimental. Awesome stunt-work finds Robert Shaw dangling from the top of the Goodyear Blimp, while John Williams' superb score thunders menacingly and Bruce Dern edges ever closer towards lighting the fuse…