Black Sunday (1977)


Time for the monthly switcheroo called the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, when a fellow blogger suggests a movie I’ve never seen and I return the favour.

This month’s assignment was a good terrorism thriller, Black Sunday (1977), in which a Palestinian group plots to attack Super Bowl X using a terrible device attached to the Goodyear blimp. The blimp’s daring pilot Michael (Bruce Dern) is a disturbed Vietnam vet with a death wish and a grudge, which makes him the perfect accomplice for Black September operative Dahlia (Marthe Keller). Israeli Mossad agent Kabakov (Robert Shaw) has picked up few, vague clues to a large attack coming in the U.S. in the New Year but nothing more, and so the film follows in detail both Kabakov’s investigation (with FBI help), and Dahlia and Michael’s preparations. Both sides suffer setbacks, improvise, have occasion to display their talents and motivations as they head toward the inevitable showdown, which comes in a tense and exciting action-packed spectacle wherein the blimp drifts, nearly crashes and is miraculously diverted.


An attack on this scale is chilling to contemplate, and the movie does a great job capturing that dread, the possible casualties and the grisly zeal and determination of the attackers. When Michael tests his weapon on a remote landing strip, only the gullible proprietor is killed, but the image of all those sunbeams shooting through tens of thousands of holes shot through the building–easily enough to wipe out everyone at the Super Bowl–make your hair stand on end. Dahlia is awed and horrified, but Michael practically jumps with joy at how well the thing works, and along with the rest of Dern’s unhinged, unpredictable performance, it makes for a scary picture of a monster with a cause.

For both the villains and heroes, the countdown toward the Super Bowl is long and frustrating, and the logistics of staging such an ambitious attack or trying to uncover and then stop it, seem equally impossible. But both aims become believable because we see the cracks and loopholes in the system, the errors and distractions that let one terrorist squeak through, or the nerves and impulses that almost ruin the terrorist plot. Mistakes are a big part of what makes these characters interesting and their respective quests so suspenseful. Kabakov should have killed Dahlia in that raid early in the picture, his fellow Mossad agent (Steven Keats) shouldn’t have let down his guard when he found Dahlia sneaking around a hospital disguised as a nurse, the NFL and blimp authority should have better protected the replacement pilot on Super Bowl Sunday, and so on. It goes to show how much hard work, loss, success and dumb luck go unnoticed, unappreciated by the public when an attack is foiled. Well-done adventure thriller about scares we still live with (and another opportunity for Robert Shaw to hunt a deadly monster), from director John Frankenheimer and adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris.

Now go find out which majestic tale of cowardice and redemption I suggested for viewing over at Mike’s Take on the Movies.


5 thoughts on “Black Sunday (1977)”

  1. Great film that sadly is still relevant today. Anyone who sees the movie usually remembers that scene of Dern and the barn. As you say it’s hair raising seeing all those rays of light and knowing each one could represent a life taken. Frankenheimer a very good director when on his game and sad to know Shaw would be dead within a couple years. For us Jaws fans, he was a major screen force as a kid.

    1. That is a beautifully photographed scene too, works on several levels. Maniacal Dern here really reminded me of Carrey’s impression of him. Good FX and rollercoaster finale, impressive for that scale, and like I said the human flaws and mistakes really made the time spent watching them work is never dull and pays off well.

  2. I always thought this was a very well made thriller from an excellent director, and Robert Shaw was at the top of his game around this time.
    I think it was somewhat undervalued for a time but I get the impression its stock has risen recently.

    1. Frankenheimer made so many great movies–I especially like The Train and Seconds, glad I finally saw this one. Some really good action set pieces and never a dull moment.

Comments are closed.