Friday, June 10, 2016

Under-valued thrllers of the 1970's: Black Sunday

It's hard not to get at least a bit conspiratorial when wondering about the relative obscurity of Black Sunday. (No, not Bava: Frankenheimer. This one:)
It *was* a high profile film, back when it was released in 1977. Among other things, producer Robert "The Kid Stays in the Picture" Evans and Paramount paid whatever they had to pay to use the bloody Goodyear Blimp - rigged with explosives and rifle darts - as an instrument of death, with the word "Goodyear" visible on it even as it cruises dangerously low over the Super Bowl, where 80,000 potential victims await, including the President - what looks to be the actual Jimmy Carter is briefly glimpsed - and two real football teams (the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers). The cast is stellar, including Robert Shaw (hot from his role as Quint in Jaws, two years previous), Bruce Dern (probably at his career high, in the first of two astoundingly good back to back roles as emotionally scarred Vietnam vets), and Marthe Keller (fresh from Marathon Man). The supporting roles too boast some serious talent, including Stephen Keats of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Michael V. Gazzo from The Godfather Part II, and Fritz Weaver, also from Marathon Man. But the film, despite the praises of critics and the support of the studio, was disappointing even back then, we gather. Paramount had predicted, based on test screenings, that it would be the next Jaws. It wasn't. In fact, by my estimation, it's almost a forgotten film, nowadays - people might know it exists, but I don't hear people talking about it that much; it's not easily found on DVD, it's not available as a Region 1 Blu Ray, and two serious film geek friends I just interacted with haven't even seen the film, somewhat to my surprise... in fact, I hadn't seen it for decades myself, until I stumbled across the DVD at a thrift store the other week...

So what went wrong? According to Wikipedia, the director said the film was hurt by both Two Minute Warning - a fairly fascist "sniper at a football game" movie with Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes, released around the same time - and the fact that the film was banned in Germany in Japan (not seeing any writing out there as to why, though one of the terrorists' backers is Japanese, and in my experience, a lot of Japanese don't like to acknowledge the existence of home-grown terror, with most of my students not even realizing that such things have existed over the years) . The surprise success of Star Wars might also suggest that film audiences were hungry for something much lighter - this is around the time of the cinematic shift that Robin Wood writes about in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, where the dark, critical, and raw American cinema of the 70's that Wood so loves - and that is fairly well-exemplified by Black Sunday, at least until the end of the film - was replaced with reactionary, feelgood crap courtesy of Spielberg and Lucas.
All of those may be factors in the film's failure and neglect, but surely there were ALSO some audiences - perhaps even influential ones - left uncomfortable by the film's relationship to reality. The bad guys - while actors - are supposed members of the actual terror group Black September, responsible for the (real) 1972 Munich massacre. There is ample talk in the film about Palestine versus Israel and the United States' support for the latter. It's a topic some Americans might find uncomfortable or at least controversial, especially since, for the first half of the film, audiences are invited to identify with the terrorists: the film is constructed so that they are portrayed as seemingly civilized people with a political goal, discussing a plan that they hope will do good for an oppressed group (we don't know at that point just how many people they're talking about killing, or how, or where, so we have no reason not to give them some leeway). Their civil discussion is interrupted by a covert commando raid by Israeli agents, who SEEM like near-faceless murderers; in short, people who are talking are interrupted by people in black who are shooting, and that sort of construction tends to pre-determine who audiences will identify with. There's an implied criticism later in the film, too, when Shaw, in his frustration, sticks a gun in Michael Gazzo's mouth, employing a sort of vigilante version of justice to get information; it will be fine with fans of Dirty Harry but might make, say, supporters of Israel squirm a bit, at the very least, neverminding that Gazzo is actually dirty...

I mean, devoid of any political context, just on a gut level, who are you going to sympathize with in images like the one below? (That's Marthe Keller, as a member of Black September, being menaced in the shower by Shaw; even HE, the "cruel Israeli," doesn't have the heart to kill her, thus allowing the plot to continue):
Eventually, your sympathies shift, so you are rooting for Shaw, but in the meantime, there's a REMARKABLE DEGREE OF SYMPATHY that you are invited to feel for Keller and especially for Bruce Dern, the apolitical American mastermind of the terror plot, who has approached Black September for backing. He's so broken by his experiences as a POW and what he sees as both his family and his country's betrayal of him after the war that he's going to kill as many people as he can to give them some reason to notice him. It's a motivation so pathetic as to be heartbreaking, and in his big breakdown scene, Keller, his handler, actually weeps at how damaged he is, a reaction that is also not particularly unsympathetic, showing her as one human caring deeply about another, even in the context of a terrorist plot. It seems to me at least possible to watch the film and root for Dern's ultimate success - especially if, like me, you're actually not the kind of person who feels much fondness for football and football audiences;  he's every bit as human a monster as Francis Dolarhyde was in Harris' next novel. And even if you're completely onside with team Israel/ America - aren't you going to be a bit concerned where the sympathies of everyone ELSE in the theatre are falling?
All in all, it's some mighty uncomfortable stuff that the film is wrangling, requiring a certain amount of maturity and political/ psychological sophistication to work your way through; not sure exactly how it might lead to the film being neglected - what specific mechanisms are afoot, beside it being overtly suppressed in a couple of places (and one really does wonder how it would have played in Israel!), but there's no question, considering its magnitude, that this film has not gotten its due. People who want clear cut good guys and bad guys, who aren't prepared to enter ambiguous and/or uncomfortable waters in pursuit of interesting film experiences should stay well away, but for viewers who crave brave and gripping film experiences that invite you to think about the world as we find it, this is one hell of a good movie, with a scary degree of relevance today, that you should seek out and watch. It may not be perfect  -the final rah-rah moments ring a bit false, given how complex the movie has been up to the climax - but it's still really, really worth seeing. Too bad Thomas Harris ended up stuck in Lecterland after writing this novel, I would have loved to see where else he may have gone, had he continued to explore characters besides Hannibal  and company, taking in the politics of the real world...I may try to track the book down and read it again, though of course, Chapters has all his other novels except this one.


fgoodwin said...

In your last photo, the blimp doesn't say "Goodyear" but rather "Super Bowl". What's up with that?

Allan MacInnis said...

Yeah, it's true - apparently (saith Wiki) Goodyear wouldn't allow their logo to appear in the posters. They had other limits, too: apparently they also specified that no one should be actually harmed by the blimp, and that the bad guy shouldn't be a regular pilot of theirs, just someone they use from time to time. It's kinda remarkable they allowed their blimp to be used at all!

Interestingly enough, in the book it's called the Aldrich blimp; presumedly Harris didn't even bother contacting Goodyear for permissions? (It's hardly necessary to anything - a fictionalized blimp is just as effective). I would love to learn if the name was a reference to filmmaker Robert Aldrich, whose most recent film at the time of the book's publication had been the football movie The Longest Yard. Wonder how director John Frankenheimer might have felt about that...?

Frank Messely said...

Brilliant 1977 thriller! High time it's released as an All Region digitally restored Blu Ray.