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What made Sam Fuller such a vital, unique filmmaker? Independence. Working under mutually beneficial deals with Robert Lippert and then Darryl F. Zanuck, Fuller was able to express his personal ideas and develop his raw filming style to his heart's content. Even afterwards, at RKO and Columbia and through his own independent productions, Fuller's imprint was unmistakable, as if each shot were embossed with his personal signature. He had taken up directing just when the Hollywood factory was starting to break up. They bulk of his career really lasted only about fifteen years -- and seventeen feature films.
After a five-year break in which he worked for TV, Fuller signed on with a Mexican co-production to write and direct a movie shot in Mexico but set on the Sudanese coast. In his autobiography A Third Face Fuller talks of being wined and dined at the fabulous villa of the Mexican co-producer, meeting Spanish director Luis Buñuel and signing an interesting cast that included Buñuel's star Silvia Pinal. Ex-stuntman Burt Reynolds had tried the Spaghetti western route to fame (Navajo Joe) and starred in a couple of American action films, but his big breakthrough Deliverance was still three years away. Fuller found the Mexican production woefully disorganized but slammed through the shoot despite rough conditions. Eventually released here as Shark!, the movie was filmed as Caine and first previewed as Man-Eater.
The story is pure Fuller adventure, but with a heavy dose of cynicism. Gunrunner Caine (Reynolds) loses his cargo on the trail and stumbles into the Sudanese fishing village of Suribar, where everyone seems to know that he's a crook. Local cop Inspector Barok (Enrique Lucero) lets him go for lack of evidence. Caine makes the acquaintance of the local alcoholic doctor, Doc (Arthur Kennedy) and a runty child thief, Runt (Carlos Barry). But rich foreigner Anna Millare (Sylvia Pinal) and her researcher husband Professor Dan Millare (Barry Sullivan) take a strong interest in Caine for their icthyological research. Their previous deck boy Mohammed was eaten by a shark, and none of the locals will work for them. Caine signs on, completing a circle of greed double-crossing to match the voracious sharks out in the bay. Anna feigns a romantic interest in Caine, who pretends that he believes her; Dan plays along but suspects that Anna's defection is real. Caine has a stock answer for everything he hears from Anna, Inspector Barok and Professor Dan: "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was a fairy tale too."
Caine's suspicions are soon confirmed: Anna and Dan are treasure hunters. Dan is using an acetylene torch to cut through plate steel on the sunken ship Victoria, in search of a chest packed with gold ingots. It's risky work, as the twitchy sharks attack any diver that acts panicky, or gets the slightest scratch.
Most of us caught up with Shark! as a footnote to the career of Sam Fuller, who disavowed it after a producer re-cut. Until this show Sam had more or less been an exception to an unwritten film business rule: most directors have no real control over work that is routinely credited as their artistic creation. So much for the Auteur theory: Andrew Sarris' celebrated his "Pantheon" but an updated book would find few directors with careers as consistent as his "Strained Seriousness" category. I still laugh whenever anybody talks about modern directors and their personal visions. Thank God for the exceptions, but most films are so thoroughly commercialized from the get-go that critics now consider film craft and film art as the same thing.
Caine! isn't Fuller's best writing work but it's efficient and lively, and if given a different post-production polish, it might have hung together much better. Film "doctor" and sometime director Herbert L. Strock reportedly put the finishing touches on the movie, under the producers' instructions. About the only thing they did right was obtaining excellent underwater footage. The sharks aren't big but they look plenty mean, and one scene of a diver being bitten looks awfully convincing, even with the fast cutting. Otherwise the production is woefully disorganized. Cutaways to real Sudanese locations don't integrate particularly well. The Mexican-filmed sets seem rather freshly painted, and there are few or no African blacks among the Arab extras, all played by Mexicans as well. The dubbing is good for most of the leads, but Silvia Pinal's voice-replacement job is so poor that her mysterious character falls totally flat. Some of the minor characters are atrociously dubbed as well. Doing even more damage is a "cool jazz" music score that doesn't enliven the locale or add to the mood. Chase scenes are scored with relaxed lounge music.
Fuller says that he followed a vague story outline because the producers never got the source book to him. There's a rummy doctor fallen on hard times, and a very Fulleresque "Short Round" kid who is a better pickpocket than the veteran thief Caine. Of course the kid gets injured and the Doc must sober up to save him. As Arthur Kennedy's doctor is unpleasant and the kid lacks personality, these scenes are pretty much a snooze. When Anna and Caine talk, some of their dialogue purposely recalls the subway scene in Pickup on South Street. Anna and Dan coldly talk about killing Caine as soon as he's served his usefulness, but Caine is no innocent victim. He instead immediately blackmails them into getting a piece of the gold action. As nobody intends to keep that bargain, the film soon devolves into a series of double-crosses. Burt Reynolds is rugged bu not as likeable as he should be, even though he's the only adventurer with a hint of human feeling.
Online reports say that Sam Fuller quit the show in protest, when the producers publicized an accidental death during filming as part of their promotional advertising. But his autobiography states that he turned in his director's workprint cut before leaving the film, and was much later invited to a first screening. Fuller invited his friend Peter Bogdanovich, only to discover that his picture had been radically re-cut and reworked by his employers, "to suit their lousy tastes." In the original Fuller version, Burt Reynolds had pulled off a terrific opening stunt. According to Fuller, Reynolds jumped from a truck as it went over a cliff. In one unbroken shot the truck exploded and burned, while Burt picked himself up and walked up to the camera for a portrait single. The producers diced this shot into three or four pieces, intercutting it with other material. It now looks like any other "fake" stunt scene.
To illustrate the threat of the sharks, Fuller scripted a sort of running gag in which cigarettes and other items thrown overboard are immediately snapped up by the killer fish. Fuller believes that the ending of the final movie lacks the cynical bite it had before the re-cut. During the last double-cross, his version reportedly repeated the cigarette business one more time, to underline the comparison between people and sharks (a favorite Orson Welles simile). If the producers and Herbert Strock went to the trouble to re-cut those scenes, I'd imagine they could very well be responsible for some of the flatness and lack of pep in the rest of the picture. The meeting of Caine and Anna, for instance, is totally ruined: they just suddenly appear sitting on a wharf, as if they were old friends. Sam Fuller made a head-scratcher or two, but nobody ever said that one of his movies was dull.
Mexican actor Enrique Lucero turns up in many U.S.-Mexican co-productions around this time; was he always first on the hiring list or was he hired because he knew English well? Also present is the great Francisco Reiguera, the emaciated-looking fellow who was Don Quixote in Orson Welles' unfinished masterpiece. A Spanish exile from Fascist dictatorship, Reiguera is in many notable Mexican films, including pictures by Luis Buñuel and Sam Peckinpah.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Shark! looks terrific; I've previous seen only glimpses of bad 16mm prints on old TV stations. Cinematographer Raúl Martinez Solares' interiors are colorful but lack atmosphere. Things pick up on the good boat Anna, and the uncredited underwater photography is terrific.
On the film itself and in many advertising materials, the title Shark! has no exclamation point. The movie made no splash whatsoever, turning up for most of us in Sam Fuller filmography lists. Shark lovers will note that not long afterwards came the evocatively titled documentary Blue Water, White Death and then Cornel Wilde's final filmmaking jaunt Shark's Treasure. I did see that in a theater, and it was terrible. All of these pictures have been shadowed by Steven Spielberg's monster shark in the superb Jaws. Shark! is tailor-made for Sam Fuller completists, of course, but it also drives home the true meaning of independence in independent filmmaking.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shark! Blu-ray rates:
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