“Black Sunday” Deserves CG Retrofit

by Glenn Lovell

Reassessment time —

Just re-watched John Frankenheimer’s 1977 “Black Sunday,” based on Thomas Harris’s first bestseller and co-starring Robert Shaw as a glum Israeli commando and a rambling, beady-eyed, typically unchecked Bruce Dern as a Vietnam vet-turned-Goodyear blimp pilot-turned Palestinian pawn.

I remember interviewing an exhausted Frankenheimer at the time. I also remember all but dismissing this superior espionage thriller-cum-disaster epic. I mounted my high horse and accused the director of exploiting national paranoia stoked by what seemed daily airline hijackings.

In a later interview Frankenheimer — who died in 2002 at age 72 — confessed that the film’s failure took its toll on him emotionally. “WblackSunhen ‘Black Sunday’ didn’t hit big,” he said, “it told me that the movie god was not smiling on me that year. There was a lot of disappointment and depression, and I started drinking — heavily.” He added, “It didn’t perform to everybody’s expectations, which was that it would be bigger than ‘Jaws.’ It came at the end of the disaster-movie cycle … We just came out at the wrong time.”
Where immediately following 9/11 did Frankenheimer stand on terrorist thrillers? Years earlier he had directed the ultimate Cold War thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate.” “It would be irresponsible to do (a ‘Black Sunday’) right now — I’m just sick of it,” he told me in what would be one of his last interviews. “These are tricky times. I don’t think anybody really knows what to do right now.”
Wish I could take that “Black Sunday” review back, John. Despite the grainy but then-state-of-the-art blue screen work for the Super Bowl climax, you were right: it’s one helluva ride — grim, coolly observed, suspenseful (thanks in large part to John Williams’ nerve-jangling score).
Check out “Black Sunday” on DVD. Given current events in the Middle East, this ambitious, intricately plotted nail-biter couldn’t be timelier. Paramount and producer Robert Evans should consider doing a CGI retrofit a la “Star Wars” and re-releasing this all-but-forgotten gem.
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