I was consuming milk thistle and gently massaging my liver in a hotel room prior to a recent Tuesday Night Cigar Club podcast when the remote control organically found its way to the Turner Classic Movies channel. Thanks to a cosmic twist of fate, the early evening movie was The Valley of Gwangi, a 1969 film that combined Spaghetti Western elements with the stop-motion dinosaurs of visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. You read that correctly, and while such a film is deserving of its own essay, what really caught my eye was that the lead cowboy – and erstwhile prehistoric monster hunter – was played by none other than the late James Franciscus (1934-1991), an underrated actor from yesteryear who possessed matinee idol good looks and a can-do enthusiasm. Franciscus is a throwback to an earlier epoch when movies were fun and actors drank whiskey and rode horses, often at the same time. The Doctor’s mother confirmed that James Franciscus also starred in an early 60’s television show called Mr. Novak, and that the ladies of the day found him quite handsome.
I myself had stumbled across a Franciscus performance in a wonderful film from 1979 called Killer Fish that starred Lee Majors and a bevy of piranhas. From the perpetual haze of my memory banks came the recollection that Franciscus also starred in the glorious 1981 Jaws homage/rip-off The Last Shark. That’s two “creature-features” from an era when rum and Chesterfields were often a line item in film budgets. This could only lead to one thing…
A Tuesday Night Cigar Club Tribute: When Movies Were Fun and Men Were Men, starring James Franciscus, Lee Majors, and Vic Morrow
KILLER FISH (1979)
Paul Diller (James Franciscus) is playing backgammon and sipping a cocktail in the restaurant of a posh Brazilian resort with the relaxed panache of a James Bond villain. Diller is intelligently establishing an alibi while a group of professional criminals perpetuate a heist for which he is the mastermind. These criminals are Bill Lasky (the one and only Lee Majors, in between gigs on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Fall Guy), Diller’s girlfriend Kate (Karen Black), and two brothers who will prove to be less fortunate souls. In a thrilling opening sequence, they create a loud diversion by starting a series of explosions at a power plant and then rappelling by wire to an adjacent building where precious gems are locked in a safe. There are definitely some miniatures used to help with the scenes of havoc and destruction, but they look fine and even add to the film’s overall entertainment value. A slick disco score (it is 1979, after all) overlays the opening credits as daylight approaches and the successful jewel thieves make their getaway. But hark, who is that driving the getaway van? It is none other than former Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini, taking a stab at acting before his popular Playgirl spread. Between Pastorini, Majors, and Francisicus – Killer Fish is overflowing with pure, unbridled late-1970’s machismo.
The case of diamonds is weighted and tossed in a nearby lake while Pastorini blows up the getaway van and dives into the Brazilian jungle. Ostensibly this tactic is to deceive the policia and wait for the heat to die down and the patrol boats to vacate the lake, and the scene is then set for the Key Largo intrigue. Frankly, while The Doctor is not bent of a criminal mind, I would have absconded with the gems and jumped on the next flight out of Rio, especially since everyone immediately begins individually scheming on how to retrieve the diamonds from the lake’s bottom. Diller, however, has foreseen this and has released piranha into the lake to protect his priceless treasure, reasoning that he can poison them when the right time comes. Complicating matters immeasurably is the arrival of a professional photo/model crew featuring the lovely Margaux Hemingway and a host of other recognizable performers from the 1970’s.
The “piranha” are initially represented by some type of bush league, gleaming ripple effect on the lake, but eventually this transmogrifies into footage of real piranha, or at least a fish that closely resembles those ugly little carnivores. Overall, Killer Fish is definitely a crisp looking movie. The eye-catching scenery of the lakeside environs is expertly photographed and the underwater scenes are a marvel to enjoy, considering the times. Remember, there was no CGI in those days. If you wanted to make a rousing adventure film – which in addition to being a creature feature, Killer Fish is nothing if not an adventure film – you either had to construct it by hand or shoot it as it existed. Of course, how much do you really need in the way of effects when you already have the natural effects of Lee Majors and James Franciscus?
What happens when everyone ends up on a pleasure boat in the middle of the lake during an epic tropical storm? A storm that causes the dam to break, releasing Diller’s masticating piranha all over the place? Can Lee Majors sustain twenty piranha bites? (In my medical opinion, well… I’m afraid it’s just far too early to tell) Do yourself a favor and hunt down Killer Fish and, failing that, hunt down the movie. If you cannot find it streaming or on the interwebs anywhere, be informed that The Doctor was able to acquire a pristine DVD some years back for the princely sum of $9. Pour a cocktail, unbutton your shirt to the navel, and bring out the backgammon board. I’d grace you with my usual closing, but we cannot have a James Franciscus-based tribute by reviewing only one movie, so let us enter our rudimentary time machine and jump ahead two years…
THE LAST SHARK (1981)
Oscar Wilde is credited with having initially opined that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. Universal Pictures apparently did not agree, because according to IMDB they sued the producers of this film that was initially titled Great White for copyright infringement. Unfortunately, I am not flush with details as I find legal matters tedious, but apparently the copyright breach centered on Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, for which I imagine Universal probably owns the rights in perpetuity. Suffice it to say that Universal won an injunction and Great White was promptly pulled from theaters. In retrospect this seems rather harsh… until you factor in that Jaws 2 had been a huge hit in the summer of 1978 and Universal clearly had more plans for the franchise. Thankfully those long, ashen days are in the past. Blame The Doctor for not knowing when Great White was repackaged as The Last Shark, but it must have been a while ago because I remembered the Franciscus Connection. The pertinent detail is that The Last Shark is currently available on Amazon Prime in all its delicious, cheese-dripping glory.
The Last Shark begins with a windsurfing montage that features slow motion action shots both above and below the water line. The community of “South Bay” is preparing for the big Centennial Regatta windsurfing competition, to be followed by an open house barbecue hosted by local political luminary William Wells. What could ruin this wholesome fun in the sun, other than a berserk man-eating shark going on an historic rampage? As if on que, the windsurfer glances down and sees that his board has been bitten clean in half! He is immediately (and comically) catapulted off of his board several feet into the air before being dragged under the water, without any look at a shark. Don’t worry though, he’s coming…
Peter Benton (James Franciscus) is a local writer of some renown and overall respected member of the community. He is also the father of Jenny, a teen dream who cavorts with the local windsurfers, some of whom are concerned about the recent disappearance of their pal. Anyone of means in South Bay is a boat owner, so Benton heads out onto the saltwater to see if he can locate the troubled youngster. And what other pleasurable surprise is on the water? The legendary Vic Morrow as Hamer, the crusty fisherman that was clearly written as a knockoff of Robert Shaw’s Quint from Jaws, only Vic Morrow was nobody’s damned knockoff.* Hamer has found the chomped up surfboard and wonderfully delivers this line “One thing’s for sure, it wasn’t a floating chainsaw.”
Benton and Hamer agree that serious trouble is afoot and quickly head back into town in a fruitless effort to apprise Mayor Wells of the situation. Wells, of course, doesn’t want anything to spoil the big Regatta weekend, so the warnings fall on deaf ears. An elected official that turns out to be a disingenuous asshole? Never you say! Nothing is going to stop the Regatta, even when a severed arm is found in an abandoned sailboat. However, a “special shark proof netting” is somehow laid down in a matter of hours to close off the bay. Benton and Hamer are allowed to provide security, so long as the heavy artillery is kept out of sight of the beach. This leads to Hamer giving a speech to the hired guns where Morrow’s accent interchanges between his native New York, something close to Scottish, and something else that resembles Romanoff Russian. All of which completely works because it’s Vic Fuckin Morrow.
With an ominous score providing the mood, we finally witness grainy, slow motion footage of a tiny shark fin which cuts back and forth between MORE slow motion scenery of a hot babe in a skimpy bikini jogging in the surf. Man, does this movie love the slo-mo! (In truth, it becomes rather mesmerizing) A large shark then breaks through the “shark proof” netting and the power brokers of South Bay are eligible for a serious refund.
The regatta is in full swing, with old school Pepsi cans everywhere. The Doctor has never attended a windsurfing competition in person and I cannot imagine that it would be an exciting prospect for spectators, but since I both play and watch golf, I will reserve any judgment. Our shark arrives in a feeding frenzy, knocking windsurfers from their boards in every direction; you don’t see the gigantic fucker at first, the surfers just fall into the waves en masse before a fin emerges that is roughly the size of Nebraska. This shark also likes to play the role of torpedo, resulting in another hilarious, volcanic catapulting.
Benton, Hamer, and Benton’s comely wife head out to find the bastard on an exact replica of Quint’s Orca from Jaws. Unbeknownst to them, the mayor’s son, along with his buddies and Benton’s daughter, are also heading out for revenge. Silly teenagers…
As with Killer Fish, the underwater photography in The Last Shark is to be admired. The shark scenes work as well, despite the dichotomy of the live action shark footage being mixed with a ludicrously oversized rubber dummy which appears to be about the size of a submarine. Strangely, these elements magically capture the proper ambience, at least for me.
Can James Franciscus and Vic Morrow kill the monstrous son of a bitch and save South Bay before the town depletes its entire supply of red meat? (By The Doctor’s count, various citizens feed the shark two whole roasts and then an entire rack of ribs in futile attempts at capture) Will the shark bite a man in half and then eat a helicopter? And most importantly, was the promised barbecue at the Mayor’s house canceled? Probably, because they are certainly out of ribs by that point.
The Last Shark is a winner. Every cliché of creature features and shark movies – and in case you aren’t thusly educated, there are scores of these movies – is present, from dickhead politicos to great white hunters to visceral gore. And what of the reason for this tribute, the one and only James Franciscus? Perhaps there are some who will argue that Killer Fish and The Last Shark are not career hallmarks, but I would have to disagree. Franciscus was an actor who deserves his due, a man who favored elegance and subtlety over bombast, even when appearing in films of this ilk. Add in the fact that these films are technically well made, along with the presence of scene-eating stalwarts like Lee Majors and Vic Morrow, and you have the ingredients for a fantastic Saturday double-feature. Drink and/or smoke at your own discretion. As always, The Doctor wishes you all a clean bill of health.
* Vic Morrow is deserving of his own tribute. He first appeared on screen in 1955 as a juvenile delinquent terrorizing Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle, leading to a decades-long career in film and television. Many will recognize him as the win-at-all-costs Little League manager from the original The Bad News Bears. In his middle age, Morrow appeared in highly enjoyable B-pictures like The Last Shark and Humanoids From the Deep, always giving his all in memorable performances. He was tragically killed in the early 1980’s in a horrible accident involving a helicopter crash while working on the John Landis film Twilight Zone – The Movie. Like James Franciscus and the still alive-and-well Lee Majors, Vic Morrow was a wonderful actor.