Sunday, September 22, 2013

RIP Michel Brault, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Amidou... plus Orca!

I typically do not do justice to Quebec cinema. Might be an offshoot of some sort of childish resentment of having been forced - by horrible, ineffective means largely involving the conjugation of long lists of verbs - to study French in high school, when I had no interest in it. I should probably, as a Canadian, be writing this obituary more about Michel Brault, who did make some masterful and memorable cinema - particularly Les Ordres, about the government reaction to the FLQ crisis. Being who I am, however, I have to admit that I am more affected by the death of Italian screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, who also died yesterday, at age 87. In fact, by utter coincidence, I was watching a film written by him - the 1977 "nature's revenge" drama Orca: The Killer Whale - on the very day he passed...*
 (Orca artwork, from the original promotion of the film, by John Berkey)

Vincenzoni was a prolific Italian screenwriter who wrote some of the most memorable spaghetti westerns - including those really famous ones by Sergio Leone, like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but not restricted to them (my current favourite of his films not to involve Clint Eastwood would probably be Death Rides a Horse - but I haven't seen all the movies he wrote or co-wrote, not by a long shot). Orca was co-written by Sergio Donati, produced by Dino DeLaurentiis, and directed by Michael Anderson (best known for Logan's Run, most fondly regarded by me for The Quiller Memorandum). I picked it up apropos of the killer whale documentary Blackfish, which I didn't end up getting to see, and because I can remember wanting to see it when it played theatrically in 1977, when I was nine. I'm revisiting a lot of films from that time in my life lately, plundering my childhood; I also recently re-watched Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which my father took me to see theatrically that same year at my insistence, catching it on one side of Granville Street - either at the Plaza (when it was a cinema) or the Capitol 6, now both defunct - before surprising me by taking me across the street for a film that he chose for us, which happened to be Star Wars. (It says something about me that, at age nine, I had heard of the Harryhausen film, but not Star Wars). That was some good planning on his part; it stands as one of the happiest memories of my childhood, seeing those two films back to back with him...

Anyhow, Dad and I didn't get to see Orca during its brief theatrical run, and I guess it never played the Stardust, Maple Ridge's former movie theatre, and I never stumbled across it on VHS in the 1980's; so I finally scratched a 36-year-old itch to see the film last night, sharing it with my Mom, who liked it even more than I did. Turns out Orca is a somewhat improbable but surprisingly moving tale of a killer whale bent on revenging the (unintended, but not entirely accidental) death of his mate and unborn baby, at the hands of opportunistic, but ultimately honourable, fisherman (gamely played by Richard Harris). The film - shot on location in Newfoundland - does recycle some of its footage of killer whales, misrepresents humpback whale calls as killer whale ones, offers some unscientific plot points (killer whales apparently do not mate for life), and does an absolutely horrible job with Will Sampson (best known as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Chief Broom), whom it loads with improbable, pseudomystical talk-like-an-Injun dialogue (ie. to urinate is rendered as "make piss water"). Some of its whale-hunt scenes are upsetting, too, though hopefully no actual whales were harmed in production (one reads on IMDB that animal rights activists blockaded the set, thinking that the mechanical whales being delivered by truck were actual ones). But for a film that was savaged by critics, it's actually really entertaining and rather beautifully shot (if you don't mind all the recycled footage). The best bit of writing in it by me occurs when the guilt-stricken Harris, whose character lost his own wife and baby to a drunk driver some years before - making him surprisingly prone to identifying with the grieving whale - visits a church to ask the priest if it is possible to commit a sin against an animal... The movie has a great Morricone score and an entertaining cast, also including Charlotte Rampling, Keenan Wynn, Bo Derek, and Robert Carradine, though the latter three all have very small roles indeed. Despite its flaws, it's well worth seeking out... as is Les Ordres, but I wonder how many of my blog readers are guilty as I am on this count?

Edited to add:  looks like Amidou died, too! At least he lived to see Sorcerer finally getting its due... and yes, it's through that film, and not the works of Claude Lelouch, that I know him...
*Note: the timing of this blogpiece has been completely screwed up by a change in the Wikipedia obits page, which now gives Vincenzoni's death as today, the 22nd of September. This morning it was listed as the 21st, which is when Ma and I watched Orca. There is no easy way to tweak this fix, however, so I'm going to let the piece of writing stand.

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