Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Latin For The Bringer Of Death
It recently occurred to me that the entire summer had gone by and not once had I put the DVD of JAWS into my player to watch it. No big deal of course, considering how many times I’ve seen it but you’d think that at some point it would have occurred to me to do so since it so fits the mood of the season and besides, you can never see JAWS too many times. So since that feel of autumn is beginning to slightly cut into the air at night, I decided I had to do something about it. So I watched, not JAWS, but ORCA. Yes, ORCA:THE KILLER WHALE (as the poster, not the film, calls it), directed by Michael Anderson just after LOGAN’S RUN and written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati, two writers with a few of the Leone westerns among their many credits. One of a number of JAWS knockoffs that were being made back in the late seventies, this one has the added bonus of being produced by Dino De Laurentiis so, like his KING KONG remake, this means that there’s a genuine level of oddball earnestness somewhere in this sloppy storytelling so that even though it doesn’t really work it’s still weirdly watchable. Even after looking at whole chunks of it again, I’m still not even certain just how good or bad it really is. But I still watch it.
A small boat helmed by Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) is out looking for a great white shark when it stumbles upon marine biologist Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) and her assistant (Robert Carradine). When a shark appears and seems poised to attack Robert Carradine suddenly a killer whale appears saving him and killing the shark (“You thought sharks were bad! That’s nothing compared to killer whales!” is the obvious thinking here). Immediately, Nolan becomes fascinated by whales (we never see this but are told it by Rampling in narration—editing room patchwork? Are scenes missing? It’s one of a number of elements that don’t really connect) and is determined to capture one and bring it into captivity, no matter how strongly Rachel tries to talk him out of it. After setting out with his crew that includes Keenan Wynn and a pre-“10” Bo Derek (as in, What the hell is Bo Derek doing in this movie?) Nolan’s first attempt to capture one results in actually harpooning the whale’s female mate. After stringing it up aboard the ship, the female proceeds to abort her own fetus (Yikes. Rated PG, folks) before expiring. The male witnesses all this and then proceeds to enact revenge on Captain Nolan because, well, whales are geniuses, you see. The whale also screams very loud and we get continuous giant close-ups of his eye fixed on Richard Harris. And even though Nolan and his crew take port in a nearby fishing village, they receive a hostile welcome because, well, they all know the whale is after him and will do anything to fulfill his quest of vengeance.
“There’s only one creature in the world who could do that…a killer whale,” offers Charlotte Rampling when she witnesses how it handles the shark. There are probably very few actors who can pull off that ominous pause while making such statements like Charlotte Rampling does. She probably does it a few more times alone in the lecture scene that immediately follows. They way Rampling speaks, she could make what I write in this blog sound interesting. ORCA (the name of Quint’s boat in JAWS—I can imagine De Laurentiis insisting it’s just a coincidence) is an odd duck of a movie which begs the question, who is the lead character here, who is the protagonist? Richard Harris plays someone racked with guilt over what he does at the start of the film as well as a deep, dark secret from his past which allows him to sympathize with the whale’s actions. This beast coming after him in some ways represents the anger that he never acted on. But are we supposed to care about a fisherman who is essentially responsible for the death of the female whale and her unborn child through his callously selfish actions? So then if it’s not him, is the lead character Charlotte Rampling? She gets the narration and has definite screen presence but the scattershot narration causes too much inconsistency and besides, there’s nothing in the film which suggests that it’s ‘about’ her character. The final option then is that the lead character is the whale, the ostensible villain of the piece but he’s really just avenging the wrong done to him and his family when all they were doing beforehand was drifting around while bucolic Ennio Morricone music played. So then should we be cheering him on as people get killed? Or is this just a “Don’t fuck with nature and nature won’t fuck with you” morality tale? It’s this sort of disconnect that makes ORCA ideal to watch late at night, after you’ve already had a few beers and aren’t willing to commit any sort of opinion towards what you’re watching.
For all the Worst Film lists that ORCA has always appeared on, it has to be said it’s a rich-looking film, well shot and beautifully scored. It’s a surprisingly somber tale with Richard Harris walking in on a few of his crew members in bed as light-hearted as it ever gets. It’s so serious, however, that it gives no indication that it knows how ridiculous the story is, since it is after all asking us to buy a whale seeking revenge by tracking somebody who is on land and causing chain reactions that lead to mass destruction throughout the town. The whale does flips out of the water in celebration of the carnage he has caused, but the movie has him repeat this several times making it seem like the whale is gloating by a certain point. Only a year later JAWS 2 broached the revenge idea then dropped it almost instantly (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”) and a full decade later JAWS THE REVENGE actually did something with the concept, turning it into the worst kind of hackwork. ORCA feels like its own thing, however, but it ultimately feels like a more rewarding viewing experience would be watching several reels of the whale footage that’s here, both real and unreal, set to that lyrical Morricone score. Too much of the film doesn’t seem to flow together—the narration feels like an afterthought, covering over things we don’t get to see and not even particularly consistent with what we do witness. During one argument between Harris and Rampling she actually says, “Forget what I said earlier,” disregarding something she’s already said and immediately offers another argument, as if constant rewrites and reshoots caused motivations to get confused. It’s only 90 minutes long and feels choppy at points but I can’t bring myself to wish it were any longer. It’s the sort of film that casually kills off one of its most interesting characters near the end, presumably because it can’t seem to think of anything else to do with that person which always feels like a cheap way out.
In spite of all the issues, every few minutes there’s something that pops up in ORCA whether it’s that documentary-like footage of the whales, the nighttime explosions over the fishing village (Models. I miss them.), or the Morricone score taking over as what seems like most of the population of the fishing village watching Harris leave in his boat for the final battle. Not to mention the nasty fate of Bo Derek’s broken leg. The unusual Ennio Morricone score, by the way, straddles the line between mournful for Richard Harris’s character and a full-on love theme for the whales. It bursts into a the song “My Love, We Are One” which only makes it seem more like the film is about the whale and its unfortunate dealings with man. Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling certainly haven’t qualified for such a theme, that’s for sure. The fishing village, shot in Newfoundland, is a striking location and the iceberg climax was actually shot on a giant outdoor set in Malta which explains why, as impressive as it might look, it still seems slightly off.
Richard Harris does come off convincingly as a drunken lunatic at times, but he seems to never overdo things too much and if we ever feel any empathy for his character it feels like its more the result of what he does than anything in the script. Rampling, well, she has that voice, which almost makes up for the inconsistencies in her character—sure, she’s supposed to be a brilliant scientific mind but as far as the movie’s concerned, she’s just The Girl ("Come. I'll warm you," she offers this half-mad fisherman at one point). Will Sampson from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUKOO’S NEST is the local Native American who turns up every now and then to offer sage warnings to Richard Harris.
The striking imagery throughout and commitment to its own downbeat tone keeps me from disliking ORCA, in spite of its unpleasantness and general silliness. It’s not JAWS, that’s for sure. But it is its own movie, so at least it succeeds that much. And, as Charlotte Rampling would say about a whale’s intelligence, “…it exists, and is powerful, and in some respects, may even be superior to man.” When she says that, you remember.