• John Frankenheimer is a director of considerable ability, especially in the cumulative organization of details required to bring a story to an effective climax. He is responsible for such fine films as The Train, Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Manchurian Candidate, and none of his films before or since has had the eerie intensity of the first half hour of Seconds. One would suspect from his subsequent films that his abilities have faltered, but it is more likely that the problem lies with the materials. His French Connection II was almost entirely without human interest, except for one searing scene in which Gene Hackman withdraws "cold turkey" from repeated forcible injections of heroin. BLACK SUNDAY provides on the whole much better materials. There is as much spectacle and suspense as one could wish, and the details are laid out clearly, with hints of things-to-come adroitly planted so as to create maximum possible tension. The ability of the hijackers to destroy from the air everyone in the football stadium is made chillingly clear in an early scene in the Mojave Desert where the new weaponry is tested. Without such an accumulation of details the climactic scene would have lost much of its power, but Frankenheimer is a master of this kind of build-up and loses no opportunity to maximize the impact of the last half hour.
Not unexpectedly for this kind of movie, the characters are rather papier-mache. Both sides (Israeli and Arab) are totally dedicated to their respective causes, and both calmly engage in orgies of killing of the opposition. To add to this already considerable display of violence, there is the American ex-air-force pilot (Bruce Dern's most electric performance to date) who has no political convictions at all, but is conveniently used by the Arabs because he wants to "get even with the American people for what they did to him" as a Vietnam war prisoner; in fact he outdoes both sides in bloodthirstiness.
The conflict quickly becomes one between the "baddies" (the Arab terrorists) and the "goodies" (the Israeli counter-terrorists), and the audience routinely boos the one and cheers the other. The only change in this stock formula in Black Sunday is the barest suggestion by each side that "the other side" may have some merit too. Lest we think the main actress (Marthe Keller) is an unmotivated heartless killer (and she does rack up an alarming number of corpses before the film is over), we are shown her dossier by an FBI man, through which we get a momentary insight into her past: father killed in an Israeli raid on her village, mother and brothers killed in the 1967 and 1973 wars. This incident, which lasts but a few seconds, is the only clue we glean as to her motivation. In a hospital scene soon after, the hero (Robert Shaw) is told by his Israeli cohort (who is killed a few minutes later, and by his death saves Shaw's life), "You're beginning to see both sides of it, aren't you? And from our point of view that's dangerous." But neither of these points is developed, and the curtain of emotion closes very quickly. From that point on Shaw, having spared the woman in the first scene, makes up for his original error by killing rather constantly and without any visible compunction. "Any means to a good end" seems to be the motto of both sides in the struggle. And that's about the extent of the morality one will find in this film.
If you enjoy tension, suspense, and spectacle, you can revel in it here, because this degree of it doesn't come by too often. But if you prefer the confrontation of ideas, or three-dimensional characters, or reflections on the human scene, you can forget about all that as far as this film is concerned.
• There isn't a lot of action, as movies go: the visit of the children, the catching and losing of a big fish, a chase against Cuban gunboats. Nor is there much of plot—a patchwork of brief episodes in the life of a retired painter living alone on a Bahamas island at the outbreak of World War II. The story is leisurely, slow-moving, atmospheric. There are three segments patched together, each with its own ending: The Boys, The Woman, The Journey. These titles are announced on the screen as ISLANDS IN THE STREAM proceeds, to shift our mental gears from one episode to the next. The structural flaws of Hemingway's last work are self-consciously shared by the film adaptation.
And yet the film is, intermittently, very moving. For director Franklin Schaffner, more typically represented by Patton, this is a tour de force—and one which works very well, if one sits back and lets the film in its own leisurely way do its work in opening bit by bit the floodgates of feeling. The film is about life and death, loneliness and grief, and feelings so deep that one does not know how to articulate them. George C. Scott as the father gives one of his most memorable performances. Almost equally memorable is that of David Hemmings as the ship's mate, at once a drunken wastrel and a lonely sensitive man who lives vicariously through Scott and his family. As the divorced wife, Claire Bloom gives a restrained and sensitive performance.
There are times when one does not know where if anywhere the film is going, but even these sequences are worth having since they prepare the ground for the many moments of intense emotional evocation. There is the second son, who arrives hating his estranged father with a passion, and by the end of the summer never wants to leave—and all the moments in between showing the gradual change in mutual feeling. (The little boy hooks a huge fish and spends hours trying to reel it in. The father, seeing his hands bleeding, says "The fish doesn't matter—are you all right?" and the boy smiles back, "He's the one with the hook in his mouth.") There is the intense loneliness after the children leave, registered in silent pain on Scott's face. When news comes that the oldest son has been killed, Scott sits all day by the pounding surf, brooding alone, and finally says, "What he has to be to me now is just memories. I'm supposed to keep the memories and then write him off—and I can't." When his ex-wife arrives to announce that she is about to remarry, he is unable to tell her the truth, that he has never loved anyone else but her, even though it means that she will believe that he does not. Searching his face for one spoken word saying that he still cares, she leaves without ever hearing that word—and he never sees her again. In few films has the tragedy of unspoken feelings been more poignantly rendered.
It is not often in film that the need for action takes such a self-consciously second place to the manifest desire to dwell on the inner effects of actions. To those viewers who are not ashamed of pausing for a while and studying the characters' feelings—and through them, their own—this film is a rare treat. The lack of the traditional virtues of plot and action only accentuates the haunting experience the film delivers. Judged by Aristotelian cannons of plot, this film is not noteworthy; judged as a vehicle of technical achievements and innovative gimmicks, it is lacking and sometimes even a bit crude; but as a revelation of human emotion, it is a phenomenon so rarely encountered in American films that one realizes after seeing this one how much one has missed.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".
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