Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Before “Jaws” there was Sam Fuller’s “Shark”

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“Shark,” originally called “Caine” and re-released as “Man-Eater,” is the first movie that Samuel Fuller made after the slap in the face that was “The Naked Kiss” effectively terminated his Hollywood career. It was shot in Manzanillo, Mexico during the Summer of Love and returns to us now courtesy of the intrepid catalog scroungers of Olive Films.

To call “Shark” a troubled production is to say the least. According to Fuller, who hated the finished film, his star Burt Reynolds threatened to quit before the film began shooting, because, as Fuller writes in his memoir A Third Face, the actor was offended by a jocular wisecrack the tough guy director made in response to his “whining about his wife, [“Laugh-In”’s sock-it-to-me girl] Judy Carne, leaving him for another guy… For Chrissakes, I was making a picture in a primitive place with incompetent guys who called themselves producers, and now I had a tantrum-throwing, ham actor to boot!” That one of the stuntmen would be killed by an improperly sedated shark is something that Fuller may have found too traumatic to mention, especially as his producers used it as a way to promote the movie.

In any case, Reynolds settled down in the role of an American gunrunner, stranded in Sudan who falls in with a treacherous pair of fortune-hunters (Barry Sullivan, the co-star of Fuller’s “40 Guns,” and Mexican actress Silvia Pinal, the star of Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana” and “Simon of the Desert”) masquerading as ichthyologists while diving for sunken treasure. Having delivered “a good little adventure movie with reasonable commercial potential,” Fuller was shocked to discover some months later that his neophyte producers had completely recut the movie, “refashioning almost every scene to suit their tastes, which were lousy.”

“Shark” was the first Sam Fuller movie I ever saw in release (all the others had been on TV or as shown by various film societies). I caught it on 42nd Street in the early ‘70s, and it was a disappointment, to say the least. While not expecting “Shock Corridor” or even “House of Bamboo,” I had been anticipating something at least as good as “The Baron of Arizona.” Uh-uh.  “Shark” was, by far, the weakest Fuller film I’d seen (although some of those that followed would be even worse). Reencountered after sitting through many years of terrible movies, however, I’d rate it just about passable.

For one thing, “Shark” is full of Fullerian tropes and trademarks (the obligatory five-year-old mascot, the bizarre tertiary characters, the showboat cynicism as when a newly bereaved mother stoically accepts her blood money and then counts the bills like a stoolie receiving a pay-off). The performances are professional, not least Arthur Kennedy’s cheerful hamming as the requisite drunken doctor. The mise-en-scène necessary to transform Manzanillo into a Red Sea fishing village is pleasingly economical. The camera placement is often striking; the action scenes are well staged and edited. (I don’t think the various shark attacks gave Steven Spielberg any ideas for “Jaws” but the slam-bang chase through the local souk could have served as the template for the one in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”)

It’s true that these elements have been jumbled up to no apparent purpose. Still, if you didn’t know Fuller was the director, the phony quality of the sharks, the locale, and the gold ingots that everyone lusts after, would be almost charming. On the other hand, the denouement, albeit, though botched by Fuller’s producers, is uncompromising… but only if you know that, as Fuller writes in his memoir, he conceived it as a tribute to Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed.”

Images: Olive Films

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Comments

  1. Dave Clayton says:

    I became aware of Samuel Fuller early on in my viewing life. My father had known him here in San Diego in the 1930s. In the 1950s, he made a number of relatively big-budget films for Fox like House of Bamboo, which I rented in 16mm and showed on campus at San Diego State, when I was a student. By then I had taken out a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema, knowing Fuller was one of their passions. When Merril’s Marauders came out, I had the pleasure of seeing it on a double-bill with Joseph Losey’s The Concrete Jungle–The Criminal retitled for the American market. Thanks for your review of a neglected Fuller opus.

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