Hitting that sought after peak of success with The Manchurian Candidate, the films that followed for director John Frankenheimer are not as endearingly remembered. His sequel to The French Connection may have paired him with shining star Gene Hackman, but he hardly helped illuminate the talent Frankenheimer had behind the camera. It would, at least, be the catalyst that sparked interest and new life in his career. A return to form heralded by Black Sunday, his action epic depicting an Israeli anti-terrorist agent appeasing and preventing a Vietnam veteran from blowing up the Super Bowl. Not knowing anything about the egg-shaped sport that dominates American culture is probably for the best, it makes it easier to focus on the villainous terrorist attempting to throw destruction onto the field.
With Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern at the helm of it all, Black Sunday is in the capable hands of two men who know exactly how to lead a film to defining brilliance. The expectations for the two of them are astronomically high, and they meet such a challenge with headstrong performances that present troubled individuals who have their vices and secrets. Morally devoid characters show moments of fluttering weakness, their ties to reality and emotion still simmering underneath. Heroic justice is found to be flawed also, and Black Sunday does well to plant and present balanced dualism in these leading characters. The hero of war spiralling with derangement and terror, the agent that won’t back down, their self-preservation as a hero mistaken for bravery in combat. Incredible these two leads may be, they rarely share the screen with one another. A relentlessly driven Shaw pursues a lead of terror that only the audience is initially aware of, and as Dern rages through with genuine derangement in his eyes, it makes it all the sweeter when the two finally meet.
Any great action film has enough of a blowout to back up the preamble of an often poor story. Black Sunday, rather decisively, delivers an incredible story. An overarching epic that muses on the uncovering and subsequent preparation to deal with a terrorist plotting his revenge on the American people that shunned him and cheated him out of a happy life. Woes of Vietnam were adapted often to the action narrative, its impact lasting years beyond the end of the war, given the later entries of This Park is Mine and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Key to the success of Black Sunday though is how close to the events of the time it really is. Two years after American troops had finally begun their retreat from foreign shores, the scope and effect of Vietnam on the mental health of the people that fought a war they may not have understood had already taken its toll.
How Black Sunday has not claimed its status of action epic is a genuine mystery and a truly sad shame. Frankenheimer’s finest thriller combines the cold and calculating Shaw with a mania-driven, emotionally ruined Dern. A final third that grips tension with a vice-like perfection and a series of performances that bring such fast pace and immediate brutality, it clashes wildly with the hour and a half of slow-burning espionage that preceded it. Dern steals the show throughout, but that is not to diminish the extraordinary value and brilliance Shaw brings to the film. A terrible act of terrorism and the attempts to follow and foil the perpetrators is shown with clear brilliance, Frankenheimer shining through with the finest film of his career.