6/14/10

Shark (1969): Sam Fuller Swims In Troubled Waters

When the fellows over at Radiation Scarred Reviews announced they would be doing a special Shark Week, I knew two things instantly. The first was that I had to get in on that, and the second being the perfect movie. I knew there would be posts on Jaws and Jaws rip-offs because they are bountiful and extremely fun to watch, but I had something different in mind, Sam Fuller’s 1969 film Shark starring Burt Reynolds. While I had never seen the film before, I was very familiar with Sam Fuller. A while back Mr. Fuller came into my life when I reviewed a film called Pickup on South Street, and it instantly became one of m favorite films of all time. Since then I’ve seen a couple of Sam’s other films, the non-traditional Western 40 Guns, the neo-noir classic Underworld U.S.A., and one of the best war films ever made The Big Red One. Sam’s films were more often than not artistic triumphs rather than box office gold, but anytime I looked over his catalog one film captured my attention because of how odd it seemed. That film was Shark.

When Shark was filmed six years before Spielberg’s Jaws, Sam Fuller was just returning from several years in France where his last couple of films, The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, had been great successes in Europe. They were both artistically challenging films dealing with issues such as race and prostitution respectively. Upon his return to America, he found that no studio would give him the financing to get a film off the ground. He was finally approached by some low budget producers to adapt Victor Canning’s novel His Bones Are Coral. (Canning also penned the novel on which Hitchcock's last film Family Plot was based.) With no other prospects looming, he accepted the job. Shark, alternately titled Caine or Man-Eater, would become one of the most controversial films of Fuller’s career. Not because of content or themes as was usually the case with his films, but rather it was because of the knock down drag out fight that this film spurred between Sam and the producers.

Shark stars Burt Reynolds (pre-mustache and pre-household name) as Caine, a gunrunner whose shipment is destroyed in the Sudan. On the run with no prospects, he slips into a port city and soon takes on work with Professor Dan Mallare (Barry Sullivan) who claims to be doing scientific research on the oceans. Caine, of course, didn’t join up because of a love of science. He had two other reasons, the Professor’s beautiful confidant Anna (Silvia Pinal) and money. Caine soon discovers that money is on the Professor’s mind as well. It seems that the academic is actually out for a treasure in lost gold on the ocean floors, but with the waters infested with man-eating sharks, he wants someone else to go get it for him. That someone else just happens to be Caine.

While most Sam Fuller films are released in stunning collections or bonus laden Criterion editions, it is quite telling that the release of Shark that I watched was put out by Troma Entertainment. I would venture to say that this is the only Sam Fuller movie that comes with an introduction by Lloyd Kaufman. Granted, it was one of the most reserved intros I’ve ever seen by the notorious huckmeister. However, something tells me that Sam Fuller, the maverick filmmaker, and Lloyd Kaufman, the guru of D.I.Y film, might have been cut from similar cloth. Shark has never, to my knowledge, been given a restoration or any of the other niceties that Fuller’s other films enjoy. The reason for this is quite simple. After the production, Sam all but disavowed the film, and never spoke of the experience of making the movie any other way than in a negative light.

Throughout the filming, Fuller was at odds with his producers. They claimed to want a “Sam Fuller film” with all the character and camera work that make his films so stunning, but they constantly tried to get involved in his process. After the film was finished, Sam retired to L.A. to edit the picture, but unbeknownst to him, the producers were busy making their own cut. When Sam got a look at the hack job they had done to his film, he hit the roof. As the story goes, director Peter Bogdanovich was there that day and had to physically restrain Sam from going after the producers. Fuller filed a petition with the Director’s guild asking for his name to be taken off the picture, and even though it was approved, the producers refused, as they wanted the gravitas of distributing a Sam Fuller picture, with or without Sam’s blessing.

There was also the matter of the shark attack. A stuntman was killed during the filming of Shark due to an actual attack by the titular creature. When the movie was released, the producers marketed the film as containing the actual footage of the man being killed by a shark. Fuller was outraged and railed against the producers for such a cheap and disrespectful gimmick.   While the film does contain one brutal looking shark attack, apparently it was all just a scheme to gain some notoriety. In fact, the film does not contain the footage in question though the producers did slap a dedication on the beginning of the film to all the brave stunt men who worked in the shark-infested waters.

Now I’ve gotten six paragraphs in and I haven’t said a word about the acting or direction of this film. The reason for that is that neither is very good. Burt Reynolds had very little film experience at the time, and though he has a natural charisma that shows through, this is surely not the Burt we all know and love from Smokey and the Bandit or Cannonball Run.  He performs serviceably, but that’s about all I can say about that. Mexican beauty Silvia Pinal and American actor Barry Sullivan perform at about the same level. The character work by Arthur Kennedy as a drunken doctor and Carlos Beriochoa as the young boy that Caine befriends stand out above the lead actors as very Fuller-esque characters. Sam Fuller’s direction is harder to talk about because there is no telling what parts or shots in the film he actually intended to put on the screen. Some of the film looks pretty rough, but there are a few moments when Fuller’s fluid camerawork does appear, and it greatly enhances those portions of Shark.

In the end, Shark may be a film that has a better story about it than in it. The trials and tribulations of Sam Fuller against the producers make for a fascinating story that is unlike anything else the respected director ever had to face. As he would say later, “I don’t want to have anything to do with sharks. Not the ones in the water or the ones in slick suits.” To the end of his life, Fuller was bitter over the experience. So if you’ve never seen a Sam Fuller film before, this is not the place to start, but if you love shark films or you’re a Fuller completist, then this is an oddity that I encourage you to check out. I hope you folks had a good time reading this, and I hope you check out lots of the posts that the fellows over at Radiation Scarred Reviews have corralled for the Shark Week Blogathon.

Bugg Rating

There doesn't seem to be a trailer for Shark out there, but I did find the infamous footage that some still believe is an actual shark attack caught on film. So take a look and let me know what you think. It's quite a scene considering that's no animatronic, that is one real live shark. 

4 comments:

  1. Wow, fascinating! I have *never* heard of this movie. Actually, I recall hearing something similar about the original JAWS when I was young, from neighborhood kids, that originally a real shark was used but it killed a guy, so then they had to use the fake one. I didn't believe it then, of course, but those kids sure did.

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  2. Sam Fuller made some very strange movies. The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor are totally bizarre. But well worth a look. I actually prefer them to his more highly regarded movies.

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  3. Thanks for the comments fellas.

    @Will- Real or Fake one of the shining moments of Shark is the attack, and even faked it took great skill to film it.

    @dfordoom- I haven't seen a Fuller movie yet that I didn't like. Look out for a review of White Dog coming soon.

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  4. The "no pristine transfer" part no longer applies, as Olive's release looks GORGEOUS. Doesn't hide (and maybe exacerbates) the fact that the film itself is a bit of a mess, though.

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