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Orca: The Killer Whale

Often written off as a cynical Jaws knock-off, Orca: The Killer Whale (1977) is actually much more than that — it's also a knock-off of Death Wish (1974), with a pissed-off marine mammal playing the part of Paul Kersey. Executive produced by Dino De Laurentiis and written by former Sergio Leone collaborators Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati (relax… these guys were hardly above slumming, to wit: Hercules Against Karate), the film stars Richard Harris as Capt. Nolan, a proud fisherman who, while trying to capture a male killer whale in order to sell it into captivity, inadvertently kills the beast's pregnant mate. The male is, understandably, outraged. Obviously conscious of the fact that he's unlikely to get a fair airing with the local authorities in a fishermen's village, the emotionally devastated whale takes justice into his own hands and goes on a one-mammal rampage that'd undoubtedly earn a tip of the shillelagh from Buford Pusser, picking off Nolan's crewmates one-by-one, while busting up the harbor with the destructive force of two brawling Gargantuas. Inexplicably sympathetic to Nolan's plight is marine biologist Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), who warms to the gruff hunter after he's carelessly slain the female whale and her child. Eventually, the villagers grow weary of a vengeful orca laying waste to their homes, prompting them to demand that Nolan head out to sea and face his tormentor. He resists for as long as he can, but when the whale bites off Bo Derek's leg, Nolan goes bananas. Livid and wracked with guilt, he rounds up his surviving crew, along with Bedford and the wise Native American Chief Bromden (Will Sampson, who apparently settled in this doomed harbor town after fleeing an Oregon mental institution), and heads out to sea for his big Captain Ahab moment. The film's high point (that is, that doesn't involve Bo Derek's leg being chewed off) finds the orca beckoning Nolan north into icier climes with a taunting wave of his flipper. It's a pity the movie never succumbs to more unabashed silliness of this kind. When the final showdown occurs, one laments that director Michael Anderson neglects to depict the vigilante whale swatting Nolan with a sockful of coins. Technically, Orca: The Killer Whale is a joke; most of the whale footage was clearly shot in a tank, giving the various attacks a campy Sea World feel, while Ted Moore's cinematography fails to take advantage its scenic seaport setting. Finally, if the picture has avoided the total infamy it so richly deserves, credit (or blame) Ennio Morricone for its lone vestige of respectability. As prolific as any composer in the history of the medium, Morricone was known in his heyday for sneakily contributing a majestic score now and then to the most marginal of works. His soaring music for this derivative detritus is absolutely magnificent — even in spite of chopped-up cues that bear the mark of studio-assisted truncation, and an ill-advised end-credit bit of operatic warbling by Carol Connors. It's the soaring, mournful score for a great seafaring epic that has yet to be made. Paramount presents Orca: The Killer Whale in a fairly solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with equally solid Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. No extras, keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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