Release Date(s)1977 (March 28, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
John Frankenheimer’s 1977 film version of Thomas Harris’ debut novel Black Sunday may not be as well-remembered today as the later Hannibal Lecter adaptations have been, but it’s one of the most unique thrillers of the Seventies. That’s as much due to the extraordinary circumstances under which it was made as it is to Frankenheimer’s gifts behind the camera, or even to the gripping narrative that Harris had crafted. Arguably, there’s never been another film quite like it, since Frankenheimer was given the extraordinary opportunity to represent real brands and organizations onscreen in the otherwise fictional context of a violent thriller about an attempted terrorist attack at the Superbowl. Corporate America has grown far more timid since that time, and there’s no way that any modern company will ever participate in this kind of production again. That leaves Black Sunday as a time capsule of a very different era, and a shining example of a kind of practical realism that’s difficult to achieve today.
Post 9/11, it may be easy to forget that the subject of terrorism was just as topical during the Seventies as it is now. Harris drew direct inspiration from the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics by members of the Black September terrorist group, and Black September would be featured prominently in his book. (The title Black Sunday would have resonated strongly with readers of the day.) The screenplay for the film went through several iterations, with Ernest Lehman being rewritten by Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat. The final shooting script follows the broad strokes of the novel, while eliminating material that was extraneous to the core narrative. Yet it still took the time to develop the relationships between the characters, offering some nice moments between the Mossad agents played by Robert Shaw and Steven Keats, as well as between the terrorists played by Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller.
Inspired by Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1966 docudrama The Battle of Algiers, Frankenheimer and cinematographer John A. Alonzo strove to give Black Sunday a similar sensation of visual immediacy. They achieved it not so much via handheld camerawork (although there’s plenty of that in the film), but rather by having the camera follow the action, instead of leading it. Randomly shaking the camera may create visual instability, but shooting as if the cameraperson doesn’t know what’s going to happen next creates a much more powerful sense of dramatic instability. The latter is far, far more effective at giving an impression of documentary realism than the former can ever achieve. (Unfortunately, too many directors since that time have failed to learn that particular lesson.) Frankenheimer also gave limited information to the extras in the action scenes, in order to generate more authentic reactions out of them. Whenever possible, he wanted to capture things spontaneously to prevent them from looking staged for the camera.
Yet there’s no getting around the fact that Frankenheimer’s effective visual style could only go so far to give Black Sunday the kind of verisimilitude that he wanted to achieve. To take it to the next level, he needed to be able to photograph real people and events as well. So, he got permission from the NFL not just to use real teams and trademarks in the film, but also to shoot scenes at the very real Superbowl X that took place at the Miami Orange Bowl, pitting the Dallas Cowboys against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, and Terry Bradshaw all appear onscreen, as do many other players and members of the coaching staffs. (There’s also footage of the unforgettable performance of The Star-Spangled Banner by Tom Sullivan and Up with People, although Sullivan’s face is never shown clearly, so that must be one case where Frankenheimer couldn’t get image rights.) The NFL had never given a feature film production that kind of access, and they’ve never done it again, either. Frankenheimer actually shot much of the footage that he needed at a previous game between the Miami Dolphins and the Baltimore Colts, and the scenes of the crowd panicking as the blimp dives into the stadium were shot with extras on a completely different day, but it all intercuts together fairly seamlessly.
Securing the participation of the NFL was only half the battle, but fortunately, Frankenheimer had an ace up his sleeve to take care of the rest. Since he had developed a productive relationship with Goodyear while making Grand Prix in 1966, he was able to secure their participation on Black Sunday as well, and so he shot the film with real Goodyear Blimps and personnel. They did give him some stipulations to protect their image, such as having Bruce Dern’s character be a contract pilot rather than an actual Goodyear employee, but those requests were easy enough to accommodate without doing any harm to the story.
Frankenheimer’s visuals, combined with the active cooperation of both the NFL and Goodyear, gives Black Sunday a rather singular kind of realism. The film always maintains its veneer of authenticity, despite any technical errors (and some disappointing traveling mattes in the finale), or even when the story takes a few somewhat implausible turns. Werner Herzog once talked about what he called the "voodoo of location," referring to his idea that shooting on the actual locations where things took place helped to channel the past into his films. Yet there may well be no greater voodoo than having Robert Shaw and Fritz Weaver run around the actual Orange Bowl with a very real NFL championship game being played right behind them. It forms a striking contrast with the previous year’s Two-Minute Warning. Director Larry Peerce had to shoot a simulated football game with fake professional football teams, and that requires extra suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. In comparison, Frankenheimer was able to capitalize on the unique frisson that authentic locations, people, and brands were able to give to him. Black Sunday was one of his favorites among all the films that he directed, and for good reason. It deserves its place in the pantheon alongside all of his other classic thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, or Ronin.
Cinematographer John A. Alonzo shot Black Sunday on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. Arrow describes this version as a “High-Definition master supplied by Paramount, with additional color grading and picture restoration completed by Arrow Films at R3Store Studios.” It appears to be the same aging master that Paramount provided to Via Vision for their 2020 Imprint Films release, although there’s one major difference. The basic master looks like it was derived from a scan of a dupe element like an interpositive, and its vintage is made clear by the fact that the entire opening title sequence was windowboxed. (That’s an anachronism during the modern age of digital displays, since overscan is no longer an issue.) The Via Vision Blu-ray left it windowboxed, but part of the additional work that Arrow performed was to zoom in on it to fill the full width of the screen, so that it now matches the rest of the film.
Otherwise, the deficiencies that remain are the same on both versions, such as a bit of light leakage around the edges of the frame in the early nighttime sequences, and some faint density fluctuations elsewhere. Both discs also share the same level of fine detail, which is adequate, though not the most impressive—a fresh scan from the original camera negative could have offered some significant improvements in that regard. It’s still detailed enough to make the handful of bad traveling mattes during the conclusion stick out like a sore thumb, although it’s worth noting that the bulk of the effects were achieved in-camera using a front projection system, and those shots still hold up reasonably well. Arrow has tweaked the color timing compared to Via Vision, and the colors are sometimes slightly more saturated here. While it’s impossible to judge which one is the most accurate compared to the original theatrical release, this grade is the more satisfying of the two. Arrow’s contrast is also slightly better, with less crushed detail in the darkest scenes. Aside from the fix to the opening credits, the differences between the two are relatively minor, but Arrow still gets the nod in the end.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, 2.0 stereo LPCM, and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. Purists will appreciate the inclusion of the restored theatrical mono track, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the surround-encoded 2.0 and discrete 5.1 remixes, for one simple reason: the memorable score by John Williams. It’s included in full stereo in both remixes, and appears to have been derived from the original master tapes, so it sounds much more robust, especially in 5.1. In comparison, the music in theatrical mono track has less heft, and the strings in particular can sound a bit thin at times. The dialogue and sound effects still remain focused primarily on the center channel, so the biggest difference between all three tracks is the way that they treat the music. Your mileage may vary, but it would be a shame not to have Williams’ work presented in its best possible light. (As an aside, listen carefully for a repeated cue that Williams would rework for his score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind later that same year.)
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of Black Sunday includes a reversible insert with new artwork by Peter Strain on one side and the original theatrical artwork on the other, as well as a slipcover that uses Strain’s artwork. The first pressing also includes a 16-page booklet with an essay by Barry Forshaw and the disc’s production credits. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Josh Nelson
- It Could Be Tomorrow (HD – 29:30)
- The Directors: John Frankenheimer (Upscaled SD – 58:35)
- Image Gallery (HD, 45 in all)
Film historian Josh Nelson hits the ground running from the opening moments of his commentary, and he never slows down a single time before it’s over. It’s a dense track, loaded with fascinating information from beginning to end. He explains the complicated history behind the writing of the book, and describes some of the differences between Harris’ story and the film. He talks about the importance of Robert Evans to the project, and how the film’s relatively disappointing box office returns affected both Evans and Frankenheimer. He also provides plenty of stories about the production, including Frankenheimer’s battles with the MPAA over the fact that they wouldn’t budge on the R rating. Nelson clearly did his research before sitting down to record the commentary, and he brought the receipts to prove it. It’s a great track, and the best extra on the disc.
It Could Be Tomorrow is a visual essay by Sergio Angelini, placing Black Sunday into context with the other thrillers and disaster movies of the Seventies, as well as with the real-life terrorist incidents that influenced it. He also shares his own overview of the production. While there’s some unavoidable overlap between this essay and Nelson’s commentary, Angelini still offers fresh information—for example, he gives a much more detailed breakdown of development of the script. The Directors: John Frankenheimer is a 2003 episode of the long-running American Film Institute series, written and directed by Robert J. Emery. It features archival interviews with Frankenheimer (who had died the previous year), as well as newly recorded interviews with various people who worked with him over the years. Finally, the Image Gallery offers production photographs, lobby cards, and the main theatrical poster.
That’s a completely different slate of extras than Via Vision included on their own 2020 Blu-ray release. They offered a commentary by Stephen Prince and the theatrical trailer, as well as two featurettes: Fourth Down: Composing Black Sunday and It Could be Tomorrow: Directing Black Sunday. If you already own that disc, you’ll probably want to hang onto it for the extras alone, but this Arrow version has the edge in terms of video quality, and it also offers the restored theatrical mono track (Via Vision only included the 2.0 stereo surround and 5.1 remix). If you don’t own Black Sunday at all, then this Arrow Blu-ray is definitely the way to go—and you really do need to own Black Sunday, so now’s the time to rectify that situation. It’s one of John Frankenheimer’s most memorable thrillers, and that’s really saying something.
- Stephen Bjork