My memory of John Frankenheimer‘s Black Sunday (’77) was that it wasn’t a great thriller but a relatively decent one with a few exceptional action sequences. Not true. I saw it Sunday night at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and everything about it felt off-balance, strained, unconvincing and generally second-rate. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone and not revisit an older film.
There’s a hospital scene in which Robert Shaw‘s character, an Israeli Mossad-type agent called Major David Kabakov, is laid up with injuries. His partner and best friend, Robert Moshevsky, is played by Steven Keats. The scene begins with Marthe Keller‘s Dahlia Iyad, a Black September terrorist, dressed as a nurse and slipping into the hospital (located somewhere in Los Angeles) to kill Shaw. Keats spots her about to go into his room and asks who she is, and tells her they need to go downstairs and check with security to make sure she’s okay.
The fact that Keller speaks with a thick German accent should be a huge red warning light for Keats, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned. Then he goes into an elevator with Keller and turns his back, looking at the floor-indicator panel while Keller stands behind him. When the doors open on the bottom floor Keats is lying dead from a lethal hypodermic that Keller has shoved into his neck artery. Repeat after me: a Mossad agent is going to turn his back on a suspicious nurse with a German accent inside an elevator?
Black Sunday is peppered with ridiculous scenes like this, or with aspects that don’t work or which seem shoddy, or with bad acting or dialogue that strains credulity.
Black Sunday came right after Frankenheimer’s relatively decent French Connection II, but I’ve always believed it was the first significant manifestation of his alcoholic downswirl period. His Wiki page says the following: “Black Sunday tested very highly, and Paramount and Frankenheimer had high expectations for it. When it failed to become the hit that was expected, Frankenheimer admitted he developed a serious problem with alcohol. He is quoted in Charles Champlin‘s biography as saying that his alcohol problem caused him to do work that was below his own standards, such as Prophecy (1979), an ecological monster movie about a mutant grizzly bear terrorizing a forest in Maine.”