The Best Movie You've Never Seen - Black Sunday (Episode #3)


On the eve of the biggest football game since the Little Giants upset the Pee-Wee Cowboys, I thought this writeup would be more than appropriate.  Just take a look at the tagline for BLACK SUNDAY:

"An Israeli anti-terrorist agent must stop a disgruntled Vietnam vet cooperating in a plot to commit a terrorist plot at the Super Bowl."

This trailer inspired Quentin Tarantino to film the hospital scene in Kill Bill in split screen.

In 1977, BLACK SUNDAY was developed with the hope that it would be the smash hit that JAWS was just two years prior.  It even starred JAWS protagonist Robert Shaw, while John Williams came in to deliver the score.  However, the movie fell short of expectations...overshadowed that year by a small movie named STAR WARS.  Under-appreciated and oft-forgotten, I implore you to finally take a look at BLACK SUNDAY.

BLACK SUNDAY was developed with the very rare cooperation of the NFL.  Set during the months before Super Bowl X, the story follows two sets of people - an Israeli Mossad agent and an FBI suit trying to stop the plot, and a Black September sleeper named Dahlia and a Vietnam vet named Lander who's hellbent on inflicting pain to Americans on a large scale.  I'd argue that the tale of Lander and Dahlia is much more interesting than that of the agents.  Bruce Dern (who earned large amounts of praise this year for his role in NEBRASKA) is terrific as a deranged war veteran and P.O.W. who came home to a failed marriage - he pulls off the sympathetic villain in spades.  This was actually one reason why John Frankenheimer, the director, thought that the movie failed with audiences...fearing that moviegoers didn't know whether to root for him or against him when it was over.

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The story was originally a book by Thomas Harris.  If that names sounds familiar, BLACK SUNDAY was the only book he wrote that didn't feature his most famous creation - Hannibal Lecter.  Additionally, the female character in this film (played by Marthe Keller) was the inspiration for SILENCE OF THE LAMB'S Clarice Starling.  A hospital scene featuring Dahlia was also Quentin Tarantino's inspiration for Elle's nurse scene in Kill Bill.

 "What's this 'Super Bowl'?"

"What's this 'Super Bowl'?"

This movie is a slow burn - think THE WIRE - but when action does happen, it's very well done.  There's a very realistic chase scene about halfway through that spills onto a Miami beach that is spectacular.  Many directors nowadays should consult some of Frankenheimer's movies for how to effectively shoot action.

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The climax of the film is set during Super Bowl X - the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Interesting thing here is that every play you are seeing on screen is actual footage of the game.  Yes, the NFL granted Frankenheimer and his actors unprecendented access to the game, and features them on the sidelines of the actual game.  This means real NFL players are in the background from both teams and real fans are in the stadium, which lends a fierce realism to the atmosphere.

 No, it's not Ike Taylor.  That's Steelers corner J.T. Thomas.

No, it's not Ike Taylor.  That's Steelers corner J.T. Thomas.

There are a few things that date this movie - there's a scene featuring alarm clock bombs that look straight out of Toon Town and some horrible looking blue screen work - but for the most part, BLACK SUNDAY holds up.  The action is wonderfully shot and the tension created is masterful.

If you haven't heard of BLACK SUNDAY, jump on Netflix and check it out today.  Spoiler alert, the Steelers won the Super Bowl, 21-17.