The late American director John Frankenheimer began his career when the Cold War was at its peak. Regarded as a pioneer of the “modern-day political thriller”, he directed thirty features as well as more than fifty plays for television, and he won four Emmy Awards for his direction on the television films Against the Wall (1994), The Burning Season (1994), Andersonville (1996) and George Wallace (1997). But during the 1970s, the filmmaker was down on his luck due to a series of box-office flops. He was not being offered any jobs and the movies he wanted to make (such as The Day of the Jackal and All the President’s Men) he could not get. But this dry spell ended when he was offered to work on the action thriller French Connection II (1975) starring Gene Hackman. If you asked Frankenheimer, this lucky break of his was not due to his moviemaking skills—he claimed that the only reason he got the job was because of being fluent in French. And yet, the director is well aware of the fact that it was precisely his work on French Connection II that got him hired for his next project. Producer Robert Evans (Chinatown, Marathon Man) liked his aforementioned film and wanted him in the director’s chair for Black Sunday, a thriller based on the eponymous first novel by American author Thomas Harris, who would later become known for his books about Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising). The novel was inspired by the Munich massacre, an attack that took place in West Germany during the 1972 Summer Olympics, whereby Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. But even though Harris’ source material did well, Hollywood producers were not too keen on buying the movie rights because the ambitious plot required them to get permission from the city of Miami, the Orange Bowl, the Super Bowl and Goodyear. But Evans took his chances and purchased the rights. His adaptation was to be written by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat.
Black Sunday follows Michael Lander (portrayed by Bruce Dern), a pilot who flies the Goodyear blimp over NFL games. He is a former prisoner of war during the war in Vietnam and suffers from severe PTSD. The trauma combined with the circumstances that awaited him back at home made him not only suicidal, but also homicidal. Lander falls in love with Dahlia Iyad (Swiss actress Marthe Keller), a member of Black September who manipulates his feelings and the two conspire to set up a terrorist attack in the United States, as a means of punishing Americans for supporting Israel. Their plan is to detonate a bomb attached to a blimp, while riding it over the Super Bowl game. Hot on their trail is Israeli agent David Kabakov (played by English actor Robert Shaw), who collaborates with FBI agent Sam Corley (Fritz Weaver) in an attempt to uncover Dahlia’s identity and figure out her next move. But no matter how close they get, she always seems to be one step ahead of them. Will Kabakov manage to prevent a catastrophe before it is too late?
Whether by chance or providence, producer Robert Evans’ choice of director proved to be just what the doctor ordered, because Frankenheimer had collaborated with Goodyear on his 1967 movie Grand Prix, which is why he had a good relationship with Robert Lane, head of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. When the director met with Lane, the latter told him: “You're the only person I've ever worked with who has kept his word.” Lane ultimately agreed to give the filmmaker one of their blimps, after Frankenheimer said that, in the case of a refusal, they would simply rent a blimp from Germany and paint over it, which meant that viewers would think it belonged to Goodyear anyway. And even though Lane was on board, he had three conditions for the director. First, it had to be made clear that the protagonist was not a Goodyear employee, but rather that he worked for a contractor. Second, the explosion that happens in the film’s final moments was not allowed to be seen coming out of the word “Goodyear” painted on both sides of the blimp. And third, the blimp and all of its parts were in no way to be used as a catalyst for violence (for example, its propellers were not to be utilized as a death machine). And as far as advertising was concerned, the usage of the “Goodyear Wingfoot” logo, which can be seen on the side of the blimp, was not to be depicted on the movie’s official poster. This is why the syntagm “Super Bowl” can be seen on marketing materials in its stead. In short, the blimp turned out to be the real star of the movie, which was something Evans himself stated, claiming that the money the entire cast made amounted to less than what Dustin Hoffman was paid in Marathon Man.
When talking about the blimp and the movie’s grand finale, Frankenheimer stressed how important it was to have a gradual build-up, seeing as how there were three other scenes during the course of the film that were both action-packed and unbelievably suspenseful. His goal was to deliver the best of the best at the very end, something he regretted not doing in his movie The Horseman, where he showed his ace way too early. In his own words: “Structuring a suspense movie is like writing a musical composition. As we approached the Super Bowl, the music got louder and the cutting quicker. There were 181 cuts in the three-minute sequence between the time the blimp entered the stadium and the end of the picture. Some of those cuts were only four frames—one‐sixth of a second. Subliminal cuts. I wanted the audience overwhelmed. I wanted them part of the crowd. I wanted them to feel a total sense of panic.” Needless to say, the director managed to achieve what he was aiming for. The last quarter of his 143-minute-long film presents us with a series of breathtaking and nerve-wracking events revolving around the blimp’s trajectory, with Lander maneuvering his way into piloting it while his crew is none the wiser. The editing is precise, the music majestic and the suspense overwhelming.
Frankenheimer said of his filmmaking style: “I wanted the audience to look at ‘Black Sunday’ and think we found the picture, not made it. I wanted it to look like the 6 o'clock news, wanted it to look like Pontecorvo's ‘Battle of Algiers.’ Everything was staged. But the bombs looked like real bombs (…) The attention to detail is one of the most important things. Burt Lancaster had to really know how to build a birdcage for ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ or the audience wouldn't believe his character. Bruce Dern had to know how to fly the Goodyear blimp for ‘Black Sunday.’ The handles he pulled, the way he used the wheel were absolutely the way it's done. He was really flying that blimp.”
This realism that Frankenheimer was striving for is more than palpable throughout Black Sunday. Meaning that the usage of an actual blimp was not the only ‘real’ thing that was utilized—the Super Bowl itself was also the real deal, with the film crew getting permission to shoot at the annual championship in 1976. But of course, certain things could not be shot during the game, such as the movie’s final moments, when the blimp comes crashing into the stadium and chaos ensues. Since budget costs needed to be cut, The United Way Charity provided the production with thousands of extras for those scenes at the Miami Orange Bowl, the stadium that hosted the Super Bowl, under the condition that Frankenheimer make a promotional, fifteen-minute movie for them, which he ultimately did.
It must be said that the one thing the director and producer had no intention of making was a political movie. Frankenheimer stated that if he had wanted to direct a film about the crisis in the Mideast, Black Sunday would not have been the movie he would have made. According to him: “It's no more a film about the Mideast crisis than it's a film about football”. What it is about, he claims, is terrorism itself. And as far as he is concerned, it was precisely this theme that was responsible for his film not meeting box office expectations because the action thriller Two-Minute Warning, also a movie about terrorism at a football game, opened four months prior and flopped. The high hopes regarding Black Sunday’s success are understandable, since it was one of the films that had the highest test screening scores in the history of Paramount Pictures, with many in the film business suspecting it would become the next Jaws. But even though that did not turn out to be the case, Frankenheimer’s adaptation is, without a doubt, an intense and superbly directed thriller that unravels at a perfect pace, allowing its viewers to get irrevocably sucked into its carefully developed plot.
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TunePlay - BLACK SUNDAY (1977) John Williams