Thursday, August 19, 2010

That Dern Bruce!

1975 brought us The Hindenburg, about the destruction of a famous dirigible. 1976 brought us Two Minute Warning, about panic and death at a championship football game. 1977 brought us John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, a thriller about a plot to use the Goodyear blimp to blow up the Super Bowl! Having been based on a 1975 Thomas Harris bestseller, it was not a rip-off or deliberate mish-mash of the previous two films, however. Harris conceived the idea for his story in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist incident. He even cited the same real group, Black September, as the bad guys in this fictional story!

Released when disaster movie fever had swept the nation’s cinemas, it does indeed include a finale along those lines, but the bulk of the film is a violence-tinged procedural concerning the elaborate planning of the event along with a cat and mouse game between the chief terrorist and an Israeli intelligence agent.

As the agent, Robert Shaw gives a cool, determined performance. During a raid on one of Black September’s compounds, he and his team wipe out most of the members there. However, he comes upon a female, showering and seemingly petrified by his presence. He hesitates, they lock eyes, and ultimately he decides to leave without harming her. Sadly for him and for many others, the female is Marthe Keller, one of the key strategists behind plans to kill thousands of people at the next Super Bowl! (Incidentally, lobby cards depicted this moment between the two, showing Keller nude to her torso, covering herself, while Shaw is in the frame. In the actual film, they do not share a frame and only her face and shoulders is ever shown! False advertising that probably disappointed a lot of straight guys!) He has just inadvertently made a deadly and fateful date in which their eyes will lock once again (towards the end of the film, natch!)
Following Shaw’s assault on the compound, he recovers a tape recording that Keller has done, announcing responsibility for a major terrorist act that is clearly being planned at the moment, but has yet to occur. Shaw must scramble to find out what is about to happen and attempt to thwart it. This leads to several scenes of investigation, gunplay, chasing and murder.
Keller’s ace in the hole is a professional pilot (Bruce Dern) who is regularly subcontracted to fly the Goodyear blimp. An ex-POW with severe emotional distress and barely suppressed hatred for the United States, he has planned to attach thousands of nails, embedded in plastic explosive, to the bottom of the blimp and plow into the Orange Bowl on the big day (a day, in fact, that The President is also scheduled to be in attendance!) Keller uses her considerable physical charms to help control and, in a way, mother, Dern who is always on the verge of a breakdown.
One memorable sequence has Dern and Keller testing out their explosive device at an old barn in the desert. The resultant scattering of thousands of bits of shrapnel into the barn’s wall gives an indication of the damage the pair can do to people in the stands on Super Bowl Sunday where 82,500 fans are due to be assembled. The daylight coming into the barn through the pinholes creates a memorable bit of imagery (and the film’s cinematographer John Alonzo had been Oscar-nominated for Chinatown a couple of years prior to this.)

Aiding Shaw in his pursuit of Keller and Dern are FBI agent Fritz Weaver and Shaw’s fellow agent Steven Keats. At one point, after an explosion, Shaw is hospitalized and the resourceful Keller masquerades as a nun/nurse in order to get to him and take him out before he has a chance to stop her from putting her plans into motion. The get-up gives her a real Angel of Death quality.
There wouldn’t be a movie if the plan didn’t slip into action and when that occurs (after a pretty lengthy setup in which, honestly, a few things ought to have been trimmed a little) the movie shifts into high gear. Dern and Keller mow down anything and anyone in their way with Shaw and Weaver hot on their tail. As the blimp plods along determinedly towards the stadium, John Williams’ score (an unusual one for him that has a Jerry Goldsmith-like flavor) ominously helps build suspense.
The climax finally arrives and it is a mixed bag. The editing does its best to cover up some questionable special effects (see-through people at one point and obvious pieces of a blimp rather than the entire thing) and the extras (trucked in from United Way) are sometimes less than convincing in their terror. On the flip side, there is a pretty decent stretch of time in which a melee ensues and every effort is made to stretch the suspense as far as it can go.

As for the extras, which were enlisted in return for a short film about their organization directed by Frankenheimer and narrated by Shaw, I have a question. Was it asking too much for them not to show up at an alleged Super Bowl looking as if they were cleaning out the garage?! One lady has her hair in curlers, for Chrissake! (Do yourself a favor and click to enlarge this photo.) Many times, the “frightened” people can be seen laughing during all the frenetic running around. People have no point to where they are running. (If a dirigible came over the wall and was headed to the field, would you run onto the field?!)
Someone apparently instructed the extras to point at the (imaginary, to them) sight of the blimp coming into the stadium, but perhaps they forgot to mention that along with that, there should be some concern or even fear! Too many people have a bemused or even happy reaction to the invasion. There are also some idiotic maneuvers among the panicked fans. Check out this shot (towards the right of the picture) in which one of the players has a fan by the leg!

One thing that helped lend an all-important air of authenticity to the film was the clearance that Frankenheimer received to use a) the real Goodyear blimp (provided no one was shown being killed by it directly), b) real football teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers and c) the name (and authentic footage from) The Super Bowl. Two Minute Warning had to resort to fake teams and a “championship” game, giving the film a bit of a handicap in the verisimilitude department. Shaw is shown in one sequence darting furiously through the real Super Bowl crowd.

One thing that Frankenheimer tried to do to increase the reality, but which backfired ridiculously, was in trying to suggest that the real President, Jimmie Carter, was in the stands instead of just using a generic gentleman instead. He hired an atrociously ludicrous “lookalike” to make fleetingly glimpsed appearances through the bodies of Secret Servicemen. This is one time when it might have been better to suspend disbelief and simply supply a nonspecific Commander in Chief!

The National Anthem is sung, just as it was in real life at the Super Bowl in question, by blind entertainer Tom Sullivan and the large choral group Up With People. It’s an annoying arrangement annoyingly sung. No harm to Sullivan, but I do not like when singers mispronounce words in a song out of either habit or laziness. For example, when he should be singing the word “perilous” as pare-ih-luss, he sings it pare-uh-liss. He sang here and in the same year’s Airport ’77 and that’s plenty for me! As for Up With People, I’m afraid I’m not down with them either.

Since both The Hindenburg and Two Minute Warning came first, some folks wondered if some of the impact of Black Sunday might be diminished somewhat, especially since Warning concerned death and dismay during a football game. Frankenheimer angrily dismissed any such claims, once cutting a Q & A short when an audience member merely asked the question. In his defense, Sunday is a far more intelligent and multidimensional thriller than Warning, with a cast that is arguably more believable and serious. However, for sheer movie-going fun (even if it isn’t always for the right reasons), Warning wins.

Sadly, Robert Shaw, who had been enjoying a career upsurge following Jaws in 1975, would be dead of a heart attack in 1978. He left behind a staggering ten children, one of whom was adopted. Bruce Dern, who gives an entertainingly neurotic performance here, only had a few more leading roles in him, though he has enjoyed a fifty year career and continues to work to this day. just two years after this, he scored an Oscar nod for his work in Coming Home as another troubled vet. He is, of course, the father of Laura Dern from his marriage to actress Diane Ladd.

Swiss actress Keller had trained as a ballet dancer in her youth and indeed demonstrated graceful movement in this film. Also a costar in Dustin Hoffman’s Marathon Man and Al Pacino’s Bobby Deerfield (resulting in a relationship between them for a time), she primarily worked in European productions. She did, however, come to Broadway in 2001 for a stage version of Judgment at Nuremberg in which she played the Marlene Dietrich part and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress.

Frankenheimer, who had directed several notable films including Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and The Train, was severely disappointed by this movie’s lack of performance at the box office. He developed a drinking problem and unleashed the major turd The Prophecy on the world along with a few other duds. He also directed the wholly disastrous 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which Marlon Brando was insufferably indulgent and conflict with Val Kilmer was palpable. He had a hit with Ronin, starring Robert De Niro before dying of a stroke in 2002.

With this, I have covered just about every 1970s disaster film except for the elusive City on Fire, a craptacular 1979 Canadian tax shelter production starring Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Shelley Winters, Leslie Nielsen, James Franciscus, Henry Fonda and Ava Gardner! It’s the sole one I don’t have on video in any format. Who knows if it will ever see the light of day again.

Also, incidentally, today is my birthday! Presents for Poseidon may be left outside the gates of The Underworld where they will later be categorized and sorted through (and, naturally, I’ll only be able to keep the one I like best and the rest will be given “to the poor children who don’t have anything.” LOL) Despite the fact that I probably come off as a fussy, crusty old coot most of the time, this is actually only my 43rd birthday! (I say only…. Where did it all go?!) Thanks for reading and I’ll surface again soon with another post.


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