Thursday, 9 February 2012

Orca (1977)

For a period after the release of Steven Spielberg’s foundation blockbuster Jaws (1975), every low budget movie producer and his dog tried to siphon off some of the colossal revenue flood that Spielberg’s film had unleashed, for the formula seemed so easy to emulate: have big animal with teeth, set it on assorted nubile innocents. A slew of tales about animals attacking, or some other impressive unstoppable force, followed, many from American filmmakers (Piranha, 1976; Grizzly, 1976; Claws, 1977; The Car, 1977, etc, etc), and many, like the previous wave of cash-ins inspired by The Exorcist (1973), came from the reliable batteries of Italian schlock merchants (Tentacles, 1977; The Cave of the Sharks, 1978; Zombi 2, 1979, L’Ultimo Squalo, 1980). Dino De Laurentiis, in the midst of his concerted effort to penetrate Hollywood with genre blockbusters, offered two peculiar derivations of the basic theme of hunts for rogue animals, Orca and The White Buffalo (1978), both of which feature Will Sampson, the towering Native American actor made momentarily famous by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), in tales that invoke, in a spurious but operative pop-cultural fashion, the ironic viewpoint of the aboriginal in the face of a tone-deaf modern western society. Of these two The White Buffalo is by far the better, a genuinely rich and hallucinatory tale that easily transcends whatever reasons there were for making it. Orca, on the other hand, is widely derided and perhaps justly so, but it is also such a strange, occasionally visceral and compelling film that it too asks, to a certain degree, a fair hearing. Tonally and production-wise, Orca is an outlandish cross-breed, a quickie rip-off that nonetheless has distinctive pretensions and collaborators of an alarmingly high class all around, and a fusion of pan-Atlantic talent and creative impulses. 

Orca is also a prize piece of ‘70s kitsch, signalled right at the outset where the happily mated pair of killer whales cavorts in the surf in front of a syrupy sunset straight out of a magazine ad, to a swooning score imbued with lyrical feeling by Ennio Morricone. The specific period conceits are extended in the film’s pseudo-hip themes linking environmental conscience and Weeping Indian-ad-level invocation of Native American understanding of natural forces. Of course even such facile social-relevance edges would be buffed off most genre fare in the refreshed conservatism of the ‘80s, which is one of the reasons this sort of thing is perhaps more stimulating now than it was at the time. Whereas Jaws hinted very faintly at mysterious, alien intelligence and preternatural forces behind the shark’s attacks, Orca is outright in presenting its beast as an intelligent and wily foe. At the outset it’s heroic, as the male whale rams and kills a Great White shark about to eat a young ichthyologist, Ken (Robert Carradine), after menacing him and fellow researcher Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling). This pair are plucked out of the sea by Nolan (Richard Harris), a superficially bellicose Irish fisherman, who’s out to capture a Great White and sell it to an aquarium, hoping to pay off his mortgaged boat, the Bumpo. After listening to one of Rachel’s dramatic lectures on the amazing qualities of the Orcinus orca, Nolan changes tack and sets out to catch one of them instead. But his plan goes terribly awry when he tracks the mated pair and shoots the female with a tranquiliser dart; she panics and tries to kill herself by thrusting herself against the boat’s propeller. The crew haul her out of the water and she miscarries the disturbingly human-like foetus she was carrying. Her mate, enraged, attacks and kills Nolan’s crewman Novak (Keenan Wynn), and causes another of the crew, Annie (Bo Derek, in her film debut) to break her leg.

Orca has ambitions to draw out the Melvillian themes kept mostly latent or merely phobic in Jaws, depicting Nolan as a man of awkward conscience and obsessive tendencies, and the animal as the actuation of spiritual torment. Told early on by a priest as a service for Novak that sins are committed against one’s self rather than external creatures or objects one hurts, Nolan develops a powerful guilt complex even as he laughingly staves off responsibility, but which soon enough transmutes into fixation with his marine enemy that can only be expiated in single combat in the wild. Nolan tries at first to outwit the pissed-off porpoise and resists pressure to go out and hunt it turned on him by the fishermen in the small Newfoundland town he’s forced to take harbour in, as the whale sinks their boats and contrives to blow up a fuel depot. The screenplay takes the mirroring a step further by having Nolan identify even more deeply with the creature because he too lost a wife and child, to a drunk driver. Sampson is Umilak, a local teacher and native lore-carrier who tries to guide Nolan through his predicament according to ancestral legends, but finishes up trying to restore sanity too late in the game. The director here was Michael Anderson, a practiced craftsman who had, in his time, helmed the Oscar-winning extravaganza Around The World In 80 Days (1956), and provided Harris with two important early roles in Shake Hands With The Devil (1958) and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959): the latter also established Anderson’s cred with handling nautical settings. Anderson had just come off Logan’s Run (1976), perhaps today his most admired film. Here his arch-professional grasp on the mechanics of cinema is persuasive, and he seems far from shy about drawing out the pathological notions in the tale, most clearly found in the images of the whale, bathed in infernal reds by source lights or boiling flames, eyeing its quarry from the water or dancing with glee every time it pulls off a new piece of mayhem. 

As in De Laurentiis’ King Kong remake from the year before, the accent is squarely on empathy for the beast, and in many ways Orca is as closely related to the era’s “animals are people too” flicks like Day of the Dolphin (1975) and Phase IV (1972). The overt anthropomorphism in the whale’s actions does however drains off the threat of the alien and the sense of inimical forces inherent in better variations on the theme like The Birds (1963) or Jaws itself, in a film that badly lacks persuasive drama. But Orca does pay off in an apotheosis of bizarre pathos, as the male whale pushes his martyred mate ashore on his back, Morricone’s score swirling all the way. The distinct similarities of Morricone’s music to the more romantic passages of his work for Sergio Leone is disorienting and perhaps deliberate, because Orca was written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati, who had written several of Leone’s films, with uncredited augmentation from Robert Towne, of all people: the finale even builds to a climax, after the whale leads the Bumpo north to arctic waters for a suitably extreme locale, in an arena-like circle of ice floes, invoking the end of For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good The Bad and the Ugly (1966), both which Vincenzoni and Donati wrote. The film’s signature coup is a malicious sequence in which the whale staves in the props for the harbour-side house Nolan and his crew are renting, causing the structure to tilt so it can roll Annie down and tear off her leg like someone trying to get the last M&M out of the packet. There is here some specific force in the depiction of real intelligence with an awesome physical form to back it up, and a perversely mischievous humour is apparent too, or perhaps that's just the unintended result.

Unfortunately the film’s visual punch is drained off by numbing repetitions of shots of killer whales obviously contained in the safe confines of a Seaworld tank. Although it’s barely over an hour and half long, Orca still dawdles towards its conclusion, pausing for endless portentous dialogue exchanges, and trying just a bit too hard to make us take the whole affair seriously on a psycho-spiritual level, providing rather an affected drag on a tale that just can’t be taken with a straight face. The film’s attempt to reproduce Jaws’ social-conflict subplot, through the conspiracy by the assailed locals to force Nolan to go out and kill the whale, is purely functional, and the nominal romance of Nolan and Rachel never goes anywhere. Worse, the film lacks basic suspense, except for a few seconds in the house-tipping scene. Still, the gritty, three-dimensional production qualities pay off in the finale as the heroes risk life and limb floundering in icy seas and hopping over icebergs. The orca, having successfully whittled down all of the boat’s crew save for Nolan and Rachel and sunk the Bumpo with tumbling ice that crushes Umilak, chases the last duo under the pack ice. Nolan fatally wounds the animal with a harpoon, but it lasts long enough, in a calculated consummation, to lob Nolan like a beanbag through the air to crack his bones on an iceberg, before swimming off to die under the ice, now with a lyrical song by Morricone is accompaniment. It’s impossible to tell if the intended effect was camp or a strange kind of earnestness. Harris could often devolve into overripe theatrics when disinterested in the movies he was acting in, which was increasingly often in the late-’70s and ‘80s, and here he offers little of his suppler wit and romantic sensibility, but he’s still surprisingly devoted to playing Nolan, shifting from smug, glib good-humour to contorted, morbid fixation. Rampling, as in 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely in another moment where she was actively resisting drifting into eye candy roles, is the film’s real ace, contending with a potentially thankless part with her lethal emerald stare, wetsuit-hugging physique, and air of fearsome intelligence shading into obsessiveness nearly as deep as Nolan’s. Many of the people working on Orca were self-evidently above the material, Rampling perhaps more than any other, and yet they’re all so apparently committed to it that they almost will it into being more than silly schlock. 


Ivan said...

Robert Towne?!? Sheesh, how many movies *did* he ghostwrite?

Thanks for this thoughtful and entertaining essay of a flick many would say didn't deserve your effort! (I recognize Orca's flaws, but can't help but still enjoy a film I first saw as a child.)

Roderick Heath said...

I don't know why but for a little while there I had an ambition to do a round-up of late '70s Jaws imitations. Thankfully that impulse didn't last long. Like you I first saw this as a child. It does have some saving graces, and frankly I could watch this fifty times before watching another Michael Bay Transformers movie. Thanks for posting Ivan.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Richard Harris. Keenan Wynn. Charlotte Rampling. Bo Derek. The Orca.

The heck!?!

Roderick Heath said...

My point exactly!