The film had the promotional tagline "It could be tomorrow!"
Robert Evans bought the movie rights in his independent production deal with Paramount after leaving the studio, Ernest Lehman was contracted to write the screenplay (it would prove to be his last, with additions by Ivan Moffat and Kenneth Ross) and John Frankenheimer hired to direct—he had just finished a sequel to The French Connection and was starting to be noticed (again) as a gifted film-maker, especially when it came to thrillers. From the beginning, Frankenheimer wanted to set Black Sunday apart from the normal string of disaster movies in vogue during the 70's* by making it seem as true-to-life as possible, giving it an almost documentary feel.
The movie begins with a night-time raid on a September cell by a ruthless Mossad squad (led by Robert Shaw's agent David Kabakov) that is brutally efficient in taking out the terrorists, with one notable exception: catching September agent Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller) in the shower, he lets her go with only an appraising gaze.
Big mistake. Dahlia has a plan...and a means to carry it out. She has been "grooming" the aid of a court-martialed Vietnam vet, Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), who is on the psychological edge—suffering from PTSD as a Vietnamese POW, and by the resulting collapse of his marriage upon his return, he is chronically suicidal. Curiously, that hasn't stopped him from getting a job driving the promotional blimp for the Goodyear Tire company. Bad for them. Good for Dahlia. She convinces Lander that if he is going to commit suicide, he should do it in the most spectacular way possible, striking back at the country he's convinced has betrayed him, taking out as many Americans as possible in a terrorist attack on the Orange Bowl during that year's Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the Mossad has brought in the FBI—in the form of agent Sam Corley (Fritz Weaver) on the results of the raid. Kabakov is starting to realize his error; Iyad is a former Baader Meinhoff member now offering her services to the PLO...and he had her dead to rights. She's now dropped off the intelligence radar and the Israeli's want the assassination mission completed, something Kabakov takes on as his personal responsibility. A recording that was found at the compound leads the investigators to suspect some sort of action is imminent and that the tape was meant to be discovered after the attack...but where and when the recording isn't specific.
The movie begins to take two parallel paths, following both the terrorists in their preparations and the FBI/Mossad investigation about what they might be doing. Their first idea that something is about to happen comes from a report from the Coast Guard to the FBI—twelve crates have been unloaded from a freighter to a man and woman wearing masks, but when the CG tried to intervene they were outrun. Kabakov travels to Long Beach and sneaks aboard the freighter under cover of darkness to interrogate the captain who needs a little persuasion to talk. But, when the captain answers a telephone, he is killed in an explosion and Kabakov is injured by the blast.
Those smuggled crates contain statues of the Madonna—made out of plastique that will be shaped into a large bomb to be brought into the Orange Bowl by the blimp and detonated, releasing thousands of steel flechettes, enough to kill everyone in the stadium. An initial test in the desert convinces Lander that the explosion will be uniform enough to cause the most devastation within the bowl-shaped stadium. With the plot proven in theory, Lander and Dahlia start work on the details to be ready for the next Super Bowl, while Kabakov and Corley are delayed by the Mossad agent's hospitalization. But, an aborted attempt by Dahlia to kill Kabakov in his room, convinces them that what could have been a few unrelated clues is a very real plot, one that their suspects are trying to see to completion by eliminating the investigators.
Upon Kabakov's release from the hospital, the investigation becomes more intense: Kabakov threatens a Los Angeles based importer to tell him that the shipment was for explosives to be delivered to a woman named "Kaza," then meets with an Egyptian intelligence official (Walter Gotell) who eventually tells him that this "Kaza" is actually Dahlia Iyad; when she is seen on January first in the Miami vicinity, the team start concentrating their efforts there and their suspicions begin to point to one target—the Orange Bowl, the Super Bowl.
The film then becomes a race against time and a fight against obstacles for both sides—the path is smooth for neither the terrorists or the security forces and one is kept guessing along the way whether the plot will come apart at the seams due to its own dicey nature or whether it will succeed in spite of it because the game authorities just choose to "bureaucracy" themselves into suicide. Both sides are firmly dedicated to a fanatical extreme and by the time Frankenheimer has ramped up the tension of the final denouement, you're just about willing to believe anything can happen.
And that's where director Frankenheimer is the biggest co-conspirator in the whole plot; he knows how to set things up to make the audience put the framework together, and by game-time, he has the audience both wanting to see the plot come together at the Super-Bowl, but also to see it quashed in as viscerally satisfying a way as possible. His editing has been moving at an ever-quickening pace culminating with a shootout on a Miami Beach, but, the realization of the target becomes known, the film settles into a complicated rhythm due to all the pieces coming together. And at that point, he pulls out every visual trick in the book to try to convince you that there is a goddamn blimp flying into the middle of the freakin' Super-Bowl and using every suspense trope right down to a sputtering, burning fuse.
It's pretty amazing what the film-makers got away with back in the innocent days of 1977: First off, yes, Frankenheimer did film at the genuine Super-Bowl game—Super-Bowl X (Steelers-Cowboys), to be exact—with permissions from the NFL and the two vying teams to use their logo's**—and the shots of the blimp hovering into the stadium were filmed the days before and after, with a lot of crowd cooperation going on for the scenes of panic. In fact, at one point, there's a shot of Robert Shaw sprinting along the side-lines where he is nearly strong-armed by a very real stadium security guard who didn't recognize Shaw and maybe didn't realize the movie was being filmed (the many film camera's were disguised to look like CBS-television cameras to ensure that one wasn't caught inadvertently due to all the footage being shot) .
One or two effects shots are a bit dodgy amidst the hundreds it took to construct the sequence and some of the process work stretches credulity—as if the methods used to subdue a runaway blimp weren't incredulous enough—but, that last half an hour of the film does have one on the oft-cited "edge of one's seat." When I see a film of this nature (and it's successful in its purpose) my left leg has a tendency to bounce in a nervous response that would resist any amount of sticky gum on the theater-floor and Black Sunday had that effect (and it had nothing to do with matching John Williams' "thrummy" tension music at that point in the proceedings).
At the time of the film's release (it's opening was basically swamped by the juggernaut of the first Star Wars movie), the film and story was a competent, if fanciful, thriller of the paranoid variety on the cusp of the "disaster" cycle of films. Now, it's a cautionary tale, a blueprint for terrorists to some—it and Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor" are regularly brought up in terrorism discussions—a call for vigilance by others, but, unfortunately, no longer fanciful. We've seen worse, for real.
And it's tagline—"It could be tomorrow"—rather than a come-on, now sounds like a threat.
* After the heady rush of Irwin Allen hits of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, they were starting to ebb in popularity and ideas—another entry of that year was the rather ridiculous Rollercoaster (rather than a disaster movie, it might have been a "bad accident" movie) and a previous terror-in-the-football-stadium was the previous year's Two Minute Warning, which was "legacied" into the genre for the fact that it starred Charlton Heston.
** And, if we are trying to keep it in the real world, Frankenheimer used his clout with Goodyear Tire Company (he'd worked with them in filming 1966's Grand Prix) to get the actual Goodyear blimp—with the company's actual logo—to make it feel more like a credible event. Now, that is truly amazing. And a step above Harris' novel; the author sidestepped the issue by calling it "the Aldrich blimp," creating a fictitious and non-litigious company to sponsor the air-ship.