They Go Boom

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More Frankenheimer thick-ear for your questionable delectation. BLACK SUNDAY is a latter-day Robert Evans production, and it’s shocking to see how pointless Evans’ cinema got, how fast, after he stopped being the big man at Paramount. The movie, based on a pre-Hannibal Lector Thomas Harris thriller, deals with a plot by Palestinian terrorist Marthe Keller, in cahoots with deranged Vietnam vet Bruce Dern (typecasting is a wonderful thing, sometimes) to blow up the superbowl using the Goodyear blimp, some plastic explosives smuggled Stateside as plaster madonnas, and a lot of rifle darts, making the world’s biggest nail bomb.

It’s slick, kind of meaningless, very violent (the Japanese sea captain getting his head blown off by a telephone is an early highlight) and made with Frankenheimer’s trademark professionalism and dynamism, but all that rather counts for nothing. John Alonso’s photography is very fine but this isn’t CHINATOWN.

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dead bang

Leading man/growling muscle Robert Shaw plays a Mossad agent nicknamed “the Final Solution,” which gives you some idea of the taste level. Much of the story is a paean to the efficacy of torture and intimidation in getting people to do what you want, and it isn’t very convincing. But Shaw does get the film’s only laugh when he sticks a gun in a man’s mouth and demands his assistance: “Nod for ‘yes’, die for ‘no’.”

Pretty corrupt stuff, even by the standards of modern action movies and things like the unlamented 24. Frankenheimer was often characterised as a liberal, but that gives you plenty of rope in America. I do remember one interview in a short study of his career where he kept referring to “the negro problem.” What he said about this issue wasn’t overtly offensive, or even very meaningful, but the phrase struck me as deeply problematic, not because of the lesser N word (it was the sixties, that was the preferred term) but because the construction implies “there’s a problem because there are these people called negroes”… it’s a bit like saying “the Jewish question”, isn’t it?

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Aside from Shaw’s scowling menace, Bruce Dern is fun (when is he ever not?) and Marthe Keller confirms the impression I received from CARLOS — forget Hollywood, all the really hot chicks are in international terrorism. She also plays it like she’s the heroine rather than the villain, which is a shrewd choice.

Suddenly remembered that in his self-serving autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans puts the blame for all the less inspired decisions made at Paramount on Charlie Bluhdorn, head of Engulf & Devour Gulf & Western, Paramount’s parent company. In particular, the studio’s failed attempts to make a star out of Serbo-Croatian hunk Bekim Fehmiu are attributed to Bluhdorn alone. And yet here’s Fehmiu, quite effective as a Palestinian bad guy.

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Frankenheimer, who cameos as a sweary TV director, (almost as bad type-casting as Dern’s deranged Nam vet) brings to the pointless carnage his usual dogged professionalism, dynamism, and eye for nasty detail. Unfortuntely the special effects team aren’t quite up to rendering the blimp climax in a photorealistic manner — some striking shots are let down by lame process work elsewhere, and the frenzied montage is a dead giveaway that cinematic jiggery-pokery is being deployed. Poor Frankenheimer would once again have to base a film around an impossibility when he made mutant bear movie PROPHECY. How much drink did he have to put away to survive that one?

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12 Responses to “They Go Boom”

  1. I’m possibly alone in this, but I love Frankenheimer’s declining work. He’s just so good at his job of making a film cook and providing the low pleasures that one can take from action movie filmmaking. Provided with even a middling script, he could make a thrilling movie.

    Even Ronin, which I’m given to understand is not a favorite of the house, I enjoy deeply. This is perhaps because Ronin is the most recent movie in my memory whose car stunts, which have always been my favorite brand of stunt, really impressed me. Hard to believe at this point, almost 15 years later, I can’t think of anything that has even tried to match it.

  2. Would you believe I actually LOVED The Island of Dr Moreau? A n immortal camp classic…if ever there was one! Probably the only Marlon Brando performance I ever enjoyed!

  3. Death Proof? I thought it was overlong as hell, even in the short version, but the crashes were good.

    I kind of agree about declining Frankenheimer except that I still find it a shame he didn’t find better stuff, or make the bad stuff better. He certainly spiced it up with his kinetic mise-en-scene.

    I like Ronin apart from the last scene which tries to pretend it was all in a good cause — a complete betrayal of the movie’s nihilistic spirit. And Moreau is deliriously entertaining — the out-takes are all right in there. One reason Brando is fun is because he doesn’t care. “It’s not a movie, it’s a pageant,” he is supposed to have told one of the directors.

  4. It couldn’t hurt that he was given a series of terrible scripts, crescendoing with Reindeer Games, which must qualify as the worst post-Tarantino bit of writing ever committed to the screen barring none, not even Who Is Cletus Tout? Even then though, there’s some magic in the wordless opening tracking over the dead Santa Claus’s in the snow.

  5. I’ve read somewhere that Frankenheimer worked really hard on Sunday was very disappoionted it’s commercial faliure, driving him further to the drink

    re:declining Frankenheimer, have you seen any of his later television films? Particularly Against the Wall and Paths to War. They’re rather good. It’s thought by some that what he lost with his heavily compromised hollywood movies, he made up for with these small projects which he had more control over

    Also While you’re on a Frankenheimer kick can I also recommend his ultra rare, John Sayles scripted, martial arts movie “The Challenge”. I found it wonderfully bizarre. It’s right in the middle of his nadir period but lots of fun,

  6. Frankenheimer also made the atypical family drama ALL FALL DOWN, scripted by William Inge for his protege (ahem!) Warren Beatty. This scary suburban home also contains Eva Marie Saint, Angela Lansbury, Karl Malden and Brandon de Wilde. Now that’s one house I’d like to visit!

  7. Black Sunday was made during the brief period when Hollywood thought they had found in Marthe Keller a new “international star.” Ever since Garbo the studios have had periodic crushes on europea actresses they thought would be “the new one.” The last of these was Julia Ormond. Sydney Pollack’s well-appointed but dull remake of Sabrina was suppsoed to fill this bill but it didn’t. As for Keller (enchanting when directed by DeBroca) my dear late movie-maven pal Jonathan Benair noted that her hash was cooked in Black Sunda when she intoned the immortal line “I’ve Bowhat you a Pwesent from Baywhoot!”

    Warren was Inge’s “protege” in Inge’s dreams dear. If you’re looking for a REAL Inge “protege” see Nick Nolte.

  8. Keller’s wisp, I mean lisp, is rather endearing — very Dietrich. It seems the key to being an international star nowadays is being able to do a good American accent, and the aspirant international stars have duly learned to do it.

    A shame, a bit of authentic Eurotrash would enliven the current Hollywood product. And the cast of CARLOS is full of candidates.

    The TV work looks interesting, and an easier way for a filmmaker to access worthwhile themes these days. Also checked out his BMW ad, which was a lot more enjoyable and human than Black Sunday.

    Nick Nolte? My goodness.

  9. “…forget Hollywood, all the really hot chicks are in international terrorism.”

    Nobody has or ever will do raccoon eyeliner like Marthe Keller in this movie. She’s definitely the most magnetic thing in the movie.

    I actually saw this again last year at the TCM Classic Film Festival, introduced by an interview with Evans conducted by Leonard Maltin in which they operated under the presumption that this was indeed some sort of classic. It was not the festival’s finest three hours.

  10. I suspect the only way to converse with Evans about one of his films is to view it as a defining event in the history of mankind. Even if it’s Sliver.

  11. Yes Mr. Inge “discovered” Nick who played the lead in his last play “The Last Pad.” Inge was exiled to Off-Broadway by then.

  12. Nick Nolte? Wow! Better not tell my mum!

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