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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Orca (1977) review


Richard Harris (Nolan), Charlotte Rampling (Rachel Bedford), Will Samson (Jacob Umilak), Peter Hooten (Paul), Bo Derek (Annie), Keenan Wynn (Gus Novak), Robert Carradine (Ken), Scott Walker (Al Swain)

A seafaring fisherman is determined to catch himself a killer whale. On a voyage to snag his coveted catch, Nolan (Harris) makes a bloody mess of the ordeal, killing a female killer whale, which, prior to dying slowly, gives birth on the deck of Nolan's vessel. The whale's mate having witnessed the incident, hunts down and consumes members of the crew destroying a tiny fishing hamlet in the process until Nolan has no other choice but to face the vengeful mammal on the open sea.

Michael Anderson directs this popular, yet much derided movie. ORCA (1977) was a 17 million misfire from producer Dino De Laurentiis. The mogul splurged on numerous box office disasters throughout the 70's and 80's including several bombs back to back. The Charles Bronson suspense/horror western, THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977) and the visually fantastic FLASH GORDON (1980) were two in addition to Dino's killer whale opus.

It should be obvious from watching the film that it's not a rip off of Spielberg's JAWS (more on that in a bit). But one thing that is apparent is had the killer shark movie not been made, then in all likelihood, neither would ORCA (1977). Anderson also directed the Oscar nominated film AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1957) and handled directing chores on the hugely entertaining, star-studded war picture, OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965). Another of his more popular works is the 1976 science fiction film, LOGAN'S RUN.

Back then and even today this film is oddly, and unfairly maligned as a JAWS rip off. Aside from the oceanic setting and the fact that both the shark and the killer whale consume people in the movies, there's really no comparison between the two pictures. JAWS (1975) was about a man eating shark that invades a New England beach and makes a meal off of the vacationers. ORCA (1977) on the other hand, has a hunter kill an Orca's mate in an attempt to catch one for profit, and inadvertently brings about revenge from the male killer whale.

If any comparison needs to be made, it's to Herman Melville's famous novel, Moby Dick which was also made into a feature film in 1956 and directed by John Huston. The story deals with a determined fisherman's journey to spear a gigantic white whale that cost him both his leg and his vessel during a prior encounter. For the movie, ORCA (1977), this scenario is reversed. The killer whale is the innocent creature and it is the hunter that has brought about calamity by taking away both its mate and also its baby. To further enhance the Moby Dick connection, there's even a reference to Melville's novel in the film.

Despite many people getting the chuckles at the storyline asking the viewer to buy into a vengeance seeking killer whale, Michael Anderson directs the film with a lot of enthusiasm and handles the material very seriously. Much in the way Richard Harris handles his performance as the determined yet hasty fisherman, Captain Nolan. Harris was often accused of overacting and that charge has been levied at him here as well.

At the time Harris vehemently defended the film against the critical lambasting it received upon its theatrical release. However, years later, he was less inclined to praise the film even going so far as to call it a "piece of shite." Harris is excellent here, though, as the salt of the sea that only wants to snag himself a killer whale for profit and ends up bringing a whole lot of hell down on himself (the Latin meaning of the scientific name 'Orcinus Orca' means 'from Hell') and the South Harbor fishing village in Newfoundland (a province of Canada) where the film takes place.

A lot of what is told about the Orcas in the film from Rachel (the character played by Charlotte Rampling) is true. I would imagine some liberties have been taken such as the creatures possessing an instinct for vengeance. However, they are nonetheless remarkably similar to humans and retain human traits. They travel in groups and communicate by echolocation (bio sonar) an ability also shared by some blind people that use a cane to find their way around their surroundings. Groups of Orca's also have their own dialect exclusive to their pod. The Orca has no known predators and the creatures have even been known to feast on Great White sharks.

With that said, the opening of ORCA (1977) features an interesting scene wherein Ken, the assistant to Rachel, falls from his boat into the sea. He is then attacked by a Great White shark. Just as the man eating beast is about to latch its jaws onto him, an Orca appears (presumably the same one featured in the movie) and rams the shark launching it into the air killing it.

There is a bit of terrible irony that takes place during the conclusion when Nolan and his crew take to the sea to fight the Orca. Ken (who was saved by the whale at the beginning) casually leans over the side of the vessel and the Orca suddenly leaps from the water snatching him from the deck taking him below the depths to eat him. Another interesting twist of irony surrounds the opening shark killing by the Orca. The following year saw the release of JAWS 2 (1978). In that film, there is a scene where a beached killer whale is discovered by two young people. The mammal is partially devoured and was killed by the rampaging Great White from the movie.

Another scene of note has to be one of the most stomach churning sequences in a mainstream motion picture. Once Nolan has brought the badly injured female killer whale aboard, she abruptly gives birth to a dead baby whale while the male Orca watches on. Nolan, with a nauseous look of disgust on his face, washes the fetus overboard with a water hose! This sequence is incredibly disturbing and unexpected, yet it's extremely effective nevertheless.

The scene where Bo Derek's character loses her leg is also one that is often spoken of when this film is brought up. It's a bit bloody and not only do you get a close up of the blood spouting stump, but also a shot of the Orca taking the bloody leg below the depths. This scene also builds up a bit of suspense prior to the bloody amputation.

The Orca smashes into the beams of the cottage sending a portion of the home into the water. Annie (Derek) is dangling near the edge when the Orca takes out another beam sending Nolan tumbling down towards the water. The killer whale suddenly emerges and you think the creature will snatch him but instead goes for Annie, biting off her broken leg in the process. This scene also bears impact in that Annie was one of the individuals against hunting the Orca's from the beginning.

There is an eerie atmosphere involving the inhabitants of the small fishing village, South Harbor. The entire town has an almost god-like reverence for the killer whales. One of the more prominent townies, Al Swain, is wary of what will happen as a result of Nolan's actions and subtly lays hints for him to hunt the creature. Once things have gotten out of hand, the town threatens violence on Nolan's crew via phone call if he doesn't do as he's told. Attempting to get his crew out of town proves futile as Paul (Peter Hooten) can't get gas and is told by the Indian, Umilak, "If you check the bus station, you'll find there are no tickets for you either."

However, once the aforementioned bloody scene involving Annie has taken place, Nolan finally relents and takes to the sea for a fight. The look on Richard Harris's face is one of extreme solemnity and speaks volumes about events that have taken place prior to this point, as well as what will happen next. Seemingly the entire town watches from a jetty as Nolan leaves South Harbor.

The music by prolific Italian maestro, Ennio Morricone is one of his best film score compositions. At times hauntingly beautiful, the opening theme played over the Orca family leaping and swimming beneath the waves solidifying their roles in the picture. A similar version of this opening theme, less romantic and more somber, plays over the scene in which the male Orca pushes its dying mate back into shore flanked by a group of other killer whales.

The music heard at the finale is a nerve jangling mix of suspenseful sounds heralding the final duel between man and fish. The final bit of melancholic music is a fitting end to the film despite the grim closing moments when the Orca, having satisfied his need for revenge, descends into the icy depths of the arctic committing suicide! The end song by Carol Conner is a ballad representing the relationship between the male and female Orca.

The script, written by famed Italian writers, Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati, besides stressing plausibility (but really, what movie doesn't?) paints an interesting character study of both the human and the fish variety. Possibly the most fascinating aspect of the entire film is that the killer whale is an actual character. The entire movie revolves around the fish. However, nearly equal time is spent on the character of Nolan, a man who has suffered in much the same way as the Orca. It is later revealed that Nolan had lost both his wife and child to a drunk driver.

This tragedy mirrors the scene earlier when Nolan captures the female Orca, nearly killing it in the process. The Orca later dies, as does its baby due to Nolan's carelessness. It's a fascinating parallel and really makes it difficult to define who is the real hero or villain of this movie. Both characters suffer, or have suffered greatly over personal loss and both end up committing acts of cruelty although Nolan's act of violence is indirect and born out of a need for financial gain. The Orca's violent deeds derive from vengeance for the malicious act committed against the mammal and his family.

The parallel between man and fish is also exemplified in several dialog exchanges from Nolan. The first occurs while Nolan and Rachel lie in his cabin together listening to the sounds of the killer whale on a sonar machine. Rachel asks Nolan what the creature is saying to him. His response is, "'You're me', he said. 'I'm you', he said. 'You're my...drunk driver', he said." At the end after the remaining crew has reached the polar icebergs, Nolan ponders one last time with the line, "He loved his family more than I loved mine." I would assume Nolan means that the Orca is going so far as to devour a number of humans and destroy a village to get at the man responsible for the loss of his family whereas he couldn't bring himself to commit a similar act of revenge on the individual accountable for his wife and child's deaths.

The scriptwriters excel at building Harris's character over the course of the movie. By the end, he's nearly lost his mind overcome with grief not only for the killing of the Orca's family, but all the disastrous consequences brought on by his ambitions. He states that all he wanted to do was pay off his boat and return to Ireland, but his goals ultimately result in the deaths of three people among other tragedies.

Oscar nominated actor, Richard Harris has appeared in a great number of classy films as well as some unusual choices which Harris chalks up to his drug and drinking days. Some of his most well known movies are THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), MAJOR DUNDEE (1965), A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970; which was followed by two sequels) and THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976). Harris married gorgeous actress Ann Turkel in 1974. He starred alongside her in the 1979 post apocalyptic bomb, RAVAGERS.

Harris was widely known for his drunken and disruptive behavior proving to be a most difficult interview for a number of anxious reporters. The 1980's saw Harris appearing in low string movies such as the hilarious John Derek adventure, TARZAN THE APE MAN (1981) featuring his ORCA colleague, Bo Derek. Harris would again gain some notoriety after appearing in the Clint Eastwood western, UNFORGIVEN (1992) and later on in two of the popular Harry Potter films. He died on October 25th 2002.

Charlotte Rampling was a striking beauty from England that appeared in a handful of genre pictures such as the Amicus anthology horror film, ASYLUM (1972), the odd science fiction picture, ZARDOZ (1974) and the controversial sadomasochistic thriller, THE NIGHT PORTER (1974).

Will Samson was a Native American from Oklahoma who appeared in numerous movies up till his death in 1987. Appearing in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975), Samson later took roles in THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977) and POLTERGEIST 2 (1986).

The beautiful exoticism of Bo Derek was first seen here in ORCA, but she soon became a formidable sex symbol with the release of 10 (1979). She also took a star turn in TARZAN, THE APE MAN (1981) directed by her husband, John Derek. Bo then took the starring role in the sleazy erotic adventure, BOLERO (1984) again directed by her husband. Bo Derek continued to participate in films mostly in sexy roles and even starred in some erotic thrillers in the 90's.

Peter Hooten had a brief career in tv and film and his only other known credit would likely be his role in Enzo G. Castellari's war picture, THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978). Robert Carradine (His dad was prolific horror actor John Carradine) is most famous for his starring role in REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984). Prior to that, Carradine had also appeared in the Roger Corman-Shaw Brothers co-production, CANNONBALL and the horror-revenge movie, MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH both from 1976.

The special effects were a combination of live action and animatronic killer whale props. This was Dino De Laurentiis's third film in a row to feature hydraulically or animatronically controlled creatures. The other two being the successful, but critically lambasted KING KONG (1976) remake and the box office dud, THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977), an enjoyably strange horror western hybrid starring Charles Bronson.

ORCA (1977) is a misunderstood dramatic tragedy with a thought provoking hero & villain dichotomy. A very good performance by lead actor Richard Harris carries the picture and the sometimes stunning photography and beautiful score by Morricone add a lot of value to this film. A much deeper cinematic experience than most people are willing to open up to, the film will forever be viewed as improbable and the all prevalent belief that it's a JAWS clone will always overshadow the films strong points. It's a fine production that deserves a reappraisal.

This review is representative of the Paramount DVD.


TheReverendDoom said...

Great writeup on an often overlooked cult classic. I loved it being a far darker and nastier version of JAWS. Richard Harris is perfect in it. Having the beautiful Charlotte Rampling is a great addition with Morricone's score the icing or iceberg on the proverbial cake.

venoms5 said...

The Morricone score is excellent. However, I've never seen this movie as a JAWS clone, it being more in line with MOBY DICK than anything else. But no doubt the movie was greenlit in lieu of the success of JAWS.

I first saw this back in the early 80's and have loved the film ever since. I can understand (to an extent) why so many people laugh at it because of its implausibilities, but then, how many movies abide by realism?

TheReverendDoom said...

I agree it's closer to the modern day version of MOBY DICK with the intelligent whale taking his revenge than the eating machine in JAWS. Harris is great in it too.

venoms5 said...

Yeah, Harris is very good, and I think the accusations of overacting are a bit exaggerated under the circumstances.

The movie will most likely never get any serious recognition outside of the fanbase. I have the score for this one, too and I think it's still available on CD.

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