Room Over the Garage Double Feature!

Black Sunday (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1977)

A large, finned and torpedo-shaped body glides through the frame. An ominous and gloriously puncturing John Williams score accompanies this hostile beast.  Nearby, a time-honored tradition of brazen Americana is in full-throttle.  The people in charge of the festivities know there’s an imminent and lethal threat, but the show must go on.  It’s the American way!

Is this the film Jaws, perhaps?  No, but John Frankenheimer’s expert action-thriller Black Sunday strikes distinct and interesting notes of similarity to Spielberg’s shark tale.  In Black Sunday, the Miami Super Bowl is the true-blue event of choice and an explosive-loaded Goodyear blimp – operated by a bitterly unhinged Vietnam vet – is the monster ready to unleash violence.  Frankenheimer demonstrates a skilled and unique flare for pacing and editing action films.  The two-and-a-half hour anticipation to the blimp attack unspools with scenes that have the rudimentary appeal of uneasy chapters, some of these chapters ending on such jarringly unusual moments as a man being shot to death in the ocean or a woman screaming for help.  Early action sequences, which feature a rarely-better Robert Shaw in the crossfire of whizzing grenades and catapulting bodies, seem to foreshadow the advent of Schwarzenegger-style combat.  And Frankenheimer’s fascination with the Mastermind Woman, at its delirious peak a decade earlier in The Manchurian Candidate, again rears its interesting head.  Behind every looney, pathetic man-puppet willing to carry out an act of terrorism there’s a calculating and sexually ambiguous femme fatale pulling the strings.

The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1962)

The grand dame of psychological thrillers with a mother complex perverse enough to rival any Hitchcock film, The Manchurian Candidate is Frankenheimer’s at once patriotic and anti-establishment ode to Cold War paranoia.  Frank Sinatra is Major Bennett Marco, a Korean war vet plagued by the recurring nightmare that a fellow soldier, the contemptible Raymond Shaw, murdered men in their squad while under Communist hypnosis.  Shaw is of course played by the inimitable Lawrence Harvey, an actor who flawlessly conveys a shell of stiff dignity that masks a tortured, self-loathing core.  At the heart of this core is the Red Queen of Diamonds herself, Raymond’s ruthless mother (a ferocious Angela Lansbury).  With  mother acting as magician while her labyrinthine card trick unfolds, Shaw is the helplessly brainwashed pawn in a conspiracy that reaches from the Joseph McCarthy-like rampage in D.C. to the Communist headquarters in Manchuria.

Black Sunday and The Manchurian Candidate are both very Frankenheimer films, with The Manchurian Candidate taking on a more classically structured, post-noir form. Frankenheimer’s eye for composition, apparent in the elegant handheld camera work in Sunday, is equally but differently present in Candidate.   Low angle shots with tense faces in the foreground not only channel the deep-focus sensibilities of Orson Welles but also emphasize the slavish importance of the mind.  While the female mastermind in Black Sunday seems to benefit from the Women’s Lib of the 1970s and is given a sympathetic, humanizing reason for her heinous plan, Raymond’s mother comes from the school of traditional femme fatales – women whose evil is streamlined and who are power-hungry for the sake of it.  In Lansbury’s stranglehold gaze we can see the war cry of the last great, purely nefarious female character.  In the 1940s that character was corrosive but sexually ripe, and in 1962, that character takes the form of an aging woman with one final malevolent plan.

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