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Paramount Studios presents
Black Sunday (1977)

"The American people have remained safe through all the cries of the Palestinian people. People of America, this situation is unbearable for us. From now on, you will share our suffering."
- Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: December 23, 2003

Stars: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller
Other Stars: Bekim Fehmiu, Fritz Weaver, Steven Keats, William Daniels, Walter Gotell, Michael V. Gazzo
Director: John Frankenheimer

MPAA Rating: R for (violence)
Run Time: 02h:23m:00s
Release Date: October 14, 2003
UPC: 097360885545
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-B-B- F

DVD Review

I remember seeing Black Sunday in a theater sometime during its original run circa 1977, and as a then hormonally-seething high-schooler, I don't really recall my reaction to the film itself, other than the fact that I was absolutely stunned at just how unbelievably hot Marthe Keller was, and even more so, how relentlessly evil she was. I wasn't used to seeing attractive women play bad in mainstream cinema, and while the sexy Bond girls were known to kill now and then, they all seemed just too cartoonish and over the top to be anything but comic book villainesses. Keller's Black September terrorist, Dahlia Iyad, on the other hand, was the real deal. She wasn't just beautiful, she was a cold, emotionless, machine gun-toting killer, with her hair pulled back in a tight pony tail, and a thick European accent that almost seemed to struggle to get past her mouth of giant white teeth. Yep, Keller's Dahlia truly made a long-lasting impression on me.

She scared me, and I liked it.

So now, 25+ years later, Paramount has issued an alarmingly barebones release of the late John Frankenheimer's terrorists-attack-the-Super-Bowl film, and I find myself with the opportunity to not just revisit my permanently ingrained memories of Keller, but see the film in an entirely new light. The film has come to be known by a lot of casual observers as "that one where the blimp crashes into a football stadium", and even the cover art more than telegraphs that point, a fact that lets the air out of some of the suspense that occurs during the first act.

Robert Shaw's tough guy, Israeli National Major Kabakov, knows something is going to happen in January, but he doesn't know what. We do, though, because right there on the cover we see a blimp knocking a light stanchion in half at a football stadium as the crowd scurries away frantically. The post 9/11/01 world makes situations likes a Goodyear blimp full of explosives and projectiles detonating over a crowded football stadium seem not so much like the crazy dreams of a screenwriter, but a viable "what if" scenario that suddenly doesn't seem all that far-fetched.

Based on an early novel by Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs), Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, French Connection II, Prophecy, Reindeer Games) took his sweet time in letting the story unfurl in Black Sunday (the film runs 143 minutes!), and despite the cover art telling us more than it should have, he managed to accurately make the premise seem believable, at least to a point. It is all about buildup, and Frankenheimer delivers it with the proper amount of tension and suspense. We see Shaw's Kabakov tracking down leads, we see sexy Keller plotting, we get car chases, an explosion or two, and a couple of shootouts, but most of all we get an underlying story that connects together nicely, scene by scene. It's about terrorism, and the senselessness of their intended actions seems more real with each passing day; everything in the story leads to the inevitable, as Bruce Dern, showing up here as a disgruntled, slightly unstable former Navy pilot, finally gets the chance to do his thing, which is to fly the blimp into Miami's Orange Bowl during the Super Bowl, and kill 80,000 people.

It is unfortunate that even with its painfully realistic ripped-from-the-headlines premise that the film just doesn't deliver when it really has to. It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and sadly the Black Sunday road was laid well before CG allowed filmmakers to do almost anything, and do it seamlessly.

Frankenheimer does indeed lay a strong foundation during the first 120 minutes or so, one that is properly serious and grim, but the payoff, the grand denouement, is built around a series of laughably bad process shots, inconsistently sized models and one of the most anti-climactic explosions I think I have ever seen. I know Black Sunday falls victim to when it was made, and in 1976 Frankenheimer was likely working with what he had at his disposal. It's just that the visuals didn't age well, and that's when the impact of the film quickly crumbles and begins to look horribly, horribly dated.

Marthe Keller is, however, still scary hot.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Black Sunday is presented in a fair-to-decent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with a noticeable amount of light grain and moments of oversaturated color. Fleshtones tend to run a little too red in some sequences, but overall most of the film looks spot on. Black levels are on the muddy side, especially during the big raid scene in chapter two.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Generally I'm not a big fan of new 5.1 tracks on mono films, but I was pleasantly surprised while listening to Black Sunday, or at least parts of it. The John Williams score—not his most memorable by any means but an effectively pomp action piece regardless—sounds deep and full on the new 5.1 track, and gives the film a more contemporary feel. In contrast, though, dialogue and gunfire retain a flat tone, despite the artificial 5.1 boost. Some clipping is evident during scenes featuring shouting, and the overall harshness of some sequences almost negates the whole 5.1 presentation. The differences between this and the film's original mono track, which is also included, are marginal, with the exception of the impressive treatment given to the Williams score and a slightly fuller sense of depth across the front channels.

A French language mono track is also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Nothing here other than a slim 24 chapter stops (on a 143 minute movie) and English subtitles.

Yep, pretty barren. Not even a Marthe Keller stills gallery. Damn.

Extras Grade: F


Final Comments

John Frankenheimer's tense and macho rendition of the Thomas Harris novel fumbles on the goal line simply by nature of the dated visual effects during the final act, which make the long-in-the-tooth runtime even more of a sticking point.

I like the film for sentimental reasons, but those younger viewers weaned on large-scale effects movies will be giggling in their martinis.

And Marthe Keller, if you're reading this, you look super wicked cool toting a machine gun.


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