Recently, Britain has been in the grips of a not-entirely-unpleasant heatwave and I’ve been in the grips of a new job replete with a 5 hour daily commute, meaning that by the end of the day I find myself tired, hot and way too far from the coastline to cool down in the most acceptable manner (I’m told, by staff, that hurling yourself into the Sainsbury’s mixed veg chest freezer is now considered unacceptable). So this week, I’ve been cooling down before bed by watching films from the 60s and 70s set in bodies of water.
Orca might be one of the most misunderstood films in cinema history. As a kid, I remember seeing the video box art with a massive, furious killer whale, mid-air against an angry red sky, bursting through a boat while tiny men with spears try to destroy it. It was kind of sold as a horror film and was quickly assigned to eternity as one of the endless schlocky rip-offs that came in the mighty wake of Jaws. It didn’t even garner the cult approval of Joe Dante’s Piranha, now rightly considered the best of that bunch. Orca just kind of vanished. I saw it as a kid and didn’t understand it. To me, then, it was clearly a Jaws rip off but with no action, just a lot of sitting about, talking. As an adult, watching it again years later, I can see how this film slipped through the cracks. To an audience wanting a schlocky Jaws rip-off, there’s not much here for them. It’s an intelligent, nuanced, melancholic film. Fans of more literate cinema, who really might appreciate it were unlikely to see a film marketed as it was – the original title ‘Orca The Killer Whale!’ had an exclamation mark in it. No highbrow audience will tolerate an exclamation mark in their titles.
So, the story: Richard Harris plays Nolan, an Irish fisherman working the coast of Newfoundland. He gets his first glimpse of a killer whale when he sees one saving a diver from a shark attack and he becomes intrigued. Always after a challenge and a profit, he decides to trap one to sell on to captivity in an amusement park. Despite the protestations of Charlotte Rampling as a marine academic who he gathers his information from, he sets out on his mission. The mission immediately goes wrong and, although I assert this film is not a horror film, the story catalyst comes from a scene which is horrific not through fear or gore but sheer awfulness of event. Aiming to get his prey with a harpoon with which to reel him in, Nolan manages only to clip the beast’s fin but fatally wound his mate. The stuck female Orca tries to kill herself on the ship’s propeller before Nolan can pull her on to the boat to try to help her. As he reels her in, hanging from the crane, she gives birth to a stillborn. The scene is one of great distress and emotion to everyone – Nolan is distraught, his crew are traumatised, the female whale screams throughout and, in the water, watching helplessly, is her partner.
The notion of a killer whale ‘out for revenge’ sounds like the province of the very worst of the b-movies. Indeed, the only other film to even broach such subject matter was the risible Jaws The Revenge, but the first act of Orca sets up the intelligence and empathy of the species really well, not just through Rampling’s expositional dialogue but through extended glorious footage of the orcas interacting in the wild. So well established is the intelligence of the creature that what follows is a work of careful building tension and drama rather than a plot which sounds far hokier than it is. The creature wants revenge. It has seen Nolan, it knows who he is and it knows how to get him. The whale sets a scheme in place to alienate Nolan from the small coastal town he takes refuge in, he challenges him and when Nolan refuses to take the bait, the orca goes after his crew until Nolan has no choice but to square off against the beast.
The narrative owes more to some kind of Japanese samurai film. It is brutal but mired in actions of respect, duty and dishonour. It kind of feels like a Western too. A High Noon feeling of an inevitable showdown pervades. There’s even a bizarre Herzog-Kinski quality to the piece with Richard Harris slowly succumbing to madness against an alien landscape. The quality of this film is high. Harris is on top form. Rampling could have been given a bit more to do but she brings gravitas and dignity to the film. Character actor Will Sampson makes one of his rare screen appearances here, best known as the Chief from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest but, always in my heart, Taylor from the rarely-credited-as-amazing Poltergeist 2. It’s directed by Michael Anderson who gave us Logan’s Run and The Dam Busters. He also made the worth-a-look oddball sci-fi Millenium.
The only downside in Orca are the few hokey moments, all of which being the few deaths in the film. In a narrative sense, it makes perfect sense that these deaths should happen and in the manner which they do happen but even Anderson’s skilled hand struggle to save them from a slight b-movie monster glaze. That said, they really don’t characterize the film and it’s a film that is truly worth seeing. It has aged very well, it’s a smart film which is both reflective and driven. A tight drama but also a great seabound adventure. I think the thing that surprised me the most is how successfully it gave the whale a personality and story arc. In Jaws, the shark is just an obstacle. Orca is a character.
THE DEEP (1977)
I can only imagine the bewildered disappointment that must have hung over cinema audiences as they trudged home after having watched this film. Released two years after Jaws, it was clearly put together to snare that same audience which had broken box office records. Also based on a sea-based novel by Peter Benchley, also starring Robert Shaw in the barnacled, bare-knuckled hard-ass role and also sold by a poster of a buxom young swimmer in peril, one could be forgiven for expecting something in a Jaws-y vein. But no. The Deep is a Bermuda-set thriller about treasure hunters and drug dealers.
Jacqueline Bisset and a remarkably young Nick Nolte play a couple holidaying in Bermuda and doing a bit of scuba diving. They find a submerged shipwreck and recover a medallion and a strange vial of liquid. They’ve uncovered a double shipwreck – one containing historical Spanish treasure, the other, more modern, filled with a highly valuable cargo of drugs. Robert Shaw plays the local lighthouse keeper and treasure hunter who identifies the former, Louis Gossett plays the Haitian crime boss who will do anything to get the latter.
Directed by Peter Yates, a solid journeyman director, this is a perfectly watchable but instantly forgettable thriller. John Barry’s score lifts it somewhat, the underwater photography is admirable and it contains a whopping slugfest of a battle between Shaw and Gosset’s sidekicks which should be noted as one of the great screen punch-ups of all-time. All this aside, The Deep only barely makes it out of the bracket of TV movie in its lack of ambition, fairly mundane story and the inability of Bisset and Nolte to really make the film come alive. Shaw and Gossett give the whole thing buoyancy and keep it watchable but this is one of those films which quickly sank from public consciousness and is barely worth a snorkel to explore.
JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (1973)
Once in a while, you see a film and walk away from it unsure if it was brilliant or utter dross. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is very much one of those films. Based on the best-selling novella by Richard Bach, it tells the story of a seagull ostracized by his flock for daring to push the limits of speed. The film was critically piledrivered into the ground upon its release with Roger Ebert walking out at the 45 minute mark and declaring it banal and garbage.
This somewhat surprises me as Ebert was always a very fair reviewer and I think there is a case to be fought for this film to be seen. Primarily on a visual level. This is a gorgeously photographed film. Cinematographer Jack Couffer was deservedly Oscar nominated for his work in this piece and it really is exceptional. It’s rare to see live-action nature footage shot for beauty and specifically to tell a fictional story rather than as documentary. The editor was also nominated for an Academy Award, also deservedly, for crafting this collection of stunning single shots into a coherent narrative. The cinematography and Editing alone are sublime. This puts the film in a pretty unique bracket.
Unfortunately, these factors are balanced out by some pretty uniquely terrible ideas too. The seagulls inner monologues are constantly presented by a variety of hammy actors. This renders it a little like an airborne episode of Peep Show, drained of all cynicism and world-weariness. The second mistake is the melodramatic and frequently tedious song-score by Neil Diamond which adds a surreal waft of cheddar to the whole affair. The real problem here is neither of these choices but, simply, the running time. What could have been an enchanting 30 minute filmed parable turns into almost two hours of self-obsessed seagull prattle and stadium ballads. I would imagine there was cocaine.
All that said, I can’t bring myself to slam the film. I liked it. It was interesting, it was unique, bold and absolutely stunning to look at. I think it would be incredible on a cinema screen with a live score by pretty much anyone but Neil Diamond.
THE SWIMMER (1968)
The Swimmer is a strange but mesmerising film which manages to keep you on the back foot from beginning to end without ever feeling like a J J Abrams web of twists, shocks and revelations. It’s as charismatic and enigmatic as the character the plot hangs on, a Connecticut businessman called Ned Merrill who, on turning up unexpected at the house of some old friends, decides to swim home through the network of friends’ pools that span the valley.
He’s a strong, lithe go-getter in his mid-fifties yet there is clearly something going on behind his eyes that imbue his folly with a little darkness. The nature of the journey breaks the narrative down into bite-sized, utterly compelling and unique little episodes. In each one, we learn a little bit more about who Ned is and he learns a little bit more about himself. Ex-lovers, ex-colleagues, old friends, people he’s wronged, people who have wronged him, some pleased to see him, some furious at his appearance.
Between the pools, Ned traverses the landscape, the wilderness. Paths, forests, fields, all terrains. The director, Frank Perry resists the oncoming cinematic trend for psychedelia yet uses a keen experimental edge between episodes to show us Ned’s internal state. Sometimes reflective, sometimes deluded. Little montages that fit perfectly those moments when Ned is alone and processing the things he is learning.
It stands somewhat alone in terms of genre. I suppose the closest fit to it would be The Graduate which, to some extent shares this breaking-down of the psyche of America’s materially wealthy but spiritually empty but whereas Benjamin Braddock was navigating his way out of his parents’ facile world, Merrill is very much the architect of his own isolation.
The performance is a great one. Over the journey, we see every side of this man, from many angles, many perspectives. Most film characters are flat stereotypes – we know if we should love them or hate them. This character is a lot more true, a lot more complex and human and by the end of the film, in many ways, he remains a mystery, even if his story has been satisfactorily told.
I just think this is a great film. Beautifully, thoughtfully, directed, an incredible central performance, a unique way of telling a story, something to say for itself, tightly structured and perfectly crafted.