According to Frank Capra, "Lost Horizon" was losing preview audiences until he hit on the idea of cutting the opening reels, thereby jumping into the action with a minimum of expository ceremony. "Black Sunday," a cliff-hanging thriller about a terrorist plot to use the friendly old Good year blimp as a lethal weapon and kill every last soul at the Super Bowl, including the President, might be intensified considerably if producer Robert Evans and director John Frankenheimer were in a position to scuttle a reel or two or three or four.
Regrettably, they aren't, and at 150 minutes "Black Sunday," opening today at area theaters, seems a foolishly ponderous thriller. The film may suggest enough gruesome possibilities and deliver enough random violence to get by. It culminates in a climatic aerial stunt that is undeniably scary in long shot. It's less compelling when Rober Shaw doubles for the stunt man at close quarters against a process screen.
Being a Robert Evans production, "Black Sunday" won't suffer from a lack of advertising. It has also begun to accumulate what are known in the trade as flabby raves - testimonials to the dedication and professionalism of the filmmakers that mysteriously fail to carry conviction about the film itself.
Unlike the skimpy, expendable "Two-Minute Warning," which had to fake Super Bowl action with excerpts from a U.S.C-Stanford game, "Black Sunday" was shot with National Football League cooperation and incorporate authentic moments from Super Bowl X. It also enjoys the rare privilege of deploying the Goodyear blimp a a deadly prop. Somehow these advantages haven't resulted in a movie appreciably better than "Two-minute warning."
It's difficult to tell what prevented Evans and Frankenheimer from streamlining the scenario. There's a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] tread to the movie from the outset, when we watch Marthe Keller, impropably cast as a Palestinian terrorist, stroll around Beirut waiting for the credits to run their course. The filmmakers seem to make unnecessary complications for themselves by elaborating the comings and goings of characters who remain essentially cliches.
For example, a great deal of time is expended tracing the diversionary complications that ensue when Keller and her patsy-accomplice, a revenge-seeking Vietnam veteran and POW played by Bruce Dern at his most absurdly demented, must flee the Coast Guard after unloading a consignment of plastique from a Japanese freighter. They're allowed to escape by the grace of a lame excuse in the great tradition of expedient plot rationalizations: the Coast Guard abandons pursuit for fear of "damaging the pleasure craft in the harbor, sir."
It would simplify events considerably is Keller and Dern were already in possession of the necessary explosives. Unfortunately, the scenario defies streamlining. If the superfluous smuggling interlude were eliminated, it would necessitate eliminating several other superfulous passages that follow, including the murder of an Israeli agent, played by Steven Keats, whose unexplained absence would seem awkward. Never mind that this killing, supposedly accomplished by Keller in a hospital elevator, is so outlandish that the filmmakers are afraid to depict it. They're stuck with one literal minded complication after another.
While Keller and Dern, who makes his living piloting the Goodyear blimp, ready their monstrous weapon, a nacelle armed with 200,000 rifle darts, Israeli agent Shaw endeavors to locate and thwart them, now and then assisted by Fritz Weaver as a predictably squeamish, ineffectual FBI man. "I understand behind your back they call you 'the final solution,'" Weaver remarks as a preamble to scolding Shaw for playing a lone hand.
Not final enough, it would seem. Shaw's character behaves more like Mr. Indecisive than Mr. Final Solution. To put it another way, more like a screenwriter than a commando. Having failed to kill or capture the Palestinian with the funny Swiss accent ("Our intelligence confirms the probably learned English in Switzerland or Germany") during a preparatory scene, when she's discovered helpless in the shower. Shaw displays a peculiar inability to make up his mind. "I should have killed her," he says. A few scenes later he's not so sure: "If I had the chance to pull the trigger tomorrow, I don't know if I would do it."
Since Keller murders his compatriot in the next scene it may be taken for granted that Shaw eats his words. One imagined "Black Sunday" as a picture that might antagonize Arab terrorists, but the antagonism may be spread around. Both Israelis and Super Bowl fans might find Shaw's qualms slightly preposterous under the circumstances. Meanwhile, Dern's character perpetuates a guilt-ridden screenwriter' cliche - the repatriated-POW-who-goes-berserk - that TV has already tarnished with opportunistic overuse.
Accentuating the negative, all three major cliches are embodied by performers whose appeal is rather specialized, if not downright elusive. I'm not sure whose conception of a femme fatale Marthe Keller satisfies, but it isn't mine. Moreover, she and Dern seem inadvertently funny together. Their relationship ought to give one the creeps, but it comes closer to provoking giggles. It's something about the shared angularity of their mugs and the peculiar contrast of her accent, which suggest a Swiss Elmer Fudd, with his bug-eyed, blubbering histrionics.
Dern seems to have regressed to Square One as an interpreter of psychotic roles. In startling contrast to Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver," Dern has eliminated all the subtle ambiguous stuff. One is forced to conclude that his craziness goes unnoticed by other people in "Black Sunday" because it's so glaring. It's a scream when he's asked to show his pass at the dirigible field on Black Sunday; he might as well be wearing a sign around his neck labelled "Psycho."
Shaw projects too many menacing vibrations to be a satisfying hero, but the script's ethical speculations don't really enhance his stature as a heroic anti-hero either. One scene, requiring him to run all over the Orange Bowl, exemplifies acting at its most preposterous, since it underlines the fiction of his presence at Super Bowl X.
In fact, the game footage has a curious way of defusing the suspense of the climactic action sequences. The documentary inserts and the make-believe never quite mesh. They seem to belong to different categories of photographic illusion. If anything, it might help to make the blimp assault more fantastic. It's a gimmick that seems to belong at the climax of a James Bond movie, with perhaps an entire Spectre air armada on the wing.
"Black Sunday" takes such a plodding literal-minded approach with an extravagant thriller premise that we have more than enough time to watch the gears working and all too often jamming.