dir. Sam (Motherfuckin') Fuller
"Let's worry about a replacement. It'll have to be an outsider, someone who needs us as much as we need him."
-Professor Dan Mallare
Because poverty has become all the rage of late, people may forget that, back in the day, there was quite a stigma attached to not having money. Growing up poor as shit, my siblings and I were rarely afforded the finer things in life. Forget video games, those were a pipe dream. When I was a young'un, what I wanted more than anything was a kick ass Encyclopedia set. [Yes, I was poor and a nerd, a winning combination in the school social circles.] Although Encyclopedia Brittanica was the holy grail, I would have settled for a lesser substitute such as The World Book. Pleading with my parents did little to fill their bank account with cash, however. I gave up hope that we would ever get these reference books. One day, though, much to my initial delight, my mom came home from the grocery story with the first few entries of the Funk & Wagnalls brand Encyclopedia Generica. My delight soon subsided, however, when I realized that this cheap knock-off encyclopedia was not the same brand that my richer classmates had at home. Sure, it was the same basic idea as a regular ass encyclopedia, but something about it just felt dirty. Something just felt wrong.
Such was the feeling I had when watching the Burt Reynolds vehicle Shark!, an, in name only, Sam Fuller production. Shark! has become an infamous entry in the Sam Fuller cannon. This project was offered to Fuller by a Mexican production company, during the director's long dry spell. Hungry for work, Fuller leaped at the chance to turn a routine action picture into something his own. Beset by challenges throughout filming: uncooperative producers, a stuntman's death at the hands of a shark, Fuller would finish the film only to have the project wrested from his hands by the careless producers and re-edited into a much less interesting picture. Fuller was forever embittered by the experience.
Although Shark! does disappoint, it is easy to see where it could have been a decent addition to Fuller's filmography had he had his way in the editing room. Burt Reynolds
plays Caine, a surly gun-runner working in the Middle East. After losing all of his possessions, when his truck explodes during a high speed chase, Caine hitches his way to a small town where he befriends a drunken doctor (Arthur Kennedy). He soon comes under the employ of an aging professor (Barry Sullivan) and his youngish assistant (Silvia Pinal), as a captain for their boat. This crew is in search of precious sea minerals that can be used to create food and fight world hunger, or so the professor says. It is soon revealed that the professor's deep sea diving missions are not for food miracle minerals, but gold bricks buried in the hull of a sunken ship. In order to obtain this treasure, the professor, and soon Caine, must navigate the shark infested deep. A series of plot twists and double crosses ensue.
Most disturbing to Fuller about this production was the death of the aforementioned stuntman. This tragedy stuck with him for the rest of his life. The producers, on the other hand, did their most to exploit this death in the hopes of bringing in a larger audience. In the interest of seeming not completely evil, the producers attached this blurb to the opening credits.
I'm sure that the stuntman's widow must have been rightly thrilled to see the selfless producers write such a heroic tribute to her fallen husband.
"When you woke me at three in the morning that awful night to tell me that my husband died in a shark attack, I...I...it felt like someone reached inside and took all the air out of me. I couldn't even cry, the shock, the goddamned shock, so great was that shock. I just stood there stunned. It was two weeks before I could even leave the house. I had to be carried to and from the funeral. I couldn't handle it. I...well...just thinking about that again...I." The widow began to sob.
The producer interrupted her, "Look, Ma'am-"
"Wait, let me finish. I gotta get this off my chest. This just...I...I didn't think I could go on living, living without my man. God knows why I even decided to come to this godforsaken premiere. I mean, the director didn't even come."
"Well, look lady-"
"Let me finish. Let me finish. Why I would come to a movie filled with scenes of my husband's death...why...I don't know...it's beyond me. Maybe I was just hoping to catch a glimpse of my man again. When you lose someone so young...when you...well, I guess I just needed to see him again. I don't know, maybe I wanted to hurt myself. I could've kept him here, if I told him not to go work on the picture, you know. He always listened to me. He would have not gone...if I told him. I wanted to stop him but I didn't. I guess, I blamed myself. Maybe I saw hurting myself as a way of penance."
"I wasn't gonna say anything, but now that you mention it, when you're husband died, I heard him say, 'I blame this all on my wife, not those handsome, intelligent producers.'" The producer then started to trail off, "Anyways, that's what we told the Mexican police. They seemed to..."
"The pain, the pain. I came prepared for the goddamned pain. I didn't even think I'd be able to make it through this goddamned movie. But then it happened. It happened. You mentioned my husband's work in the opening credits. To think that my man's death at the hands of sharks, would be vaguely alluded to in a pseudo tribute at the beginning of a soon to be forgotten drive-in movie made it all: the sleepless nights, the boozing, the breaking down and sobbing in the middle of the grocery store seafood section, that, all that, it made it all worthwhile."
"Yeah, we're classy like that."
"Thank you Hollywood."
The producer and the widow turned toward a photographer and gave simultaneous thumbs up.
The unfortunate death of the stuntman was not the only tragedy to befall this picture. Also, but not equally, unforgivable is the inept pacing and flat out boringness of much of Shark!. Fuller was renowned as a director of entertaining pictures. In Park Row, for instance, he even managed to make typesetting an exciting activity. The fact this film is so often dull, speaks volumes about the producers and the editors they hired to destroy the picture. To fuck up a Fuller directed film about international intrigue, deep sea treasure hunting, and shark battles, the editors would have had to be quite the masters of ineptitude. [On an unrelated note, I am also troubled by the fact that this film probably contains actual footage of the stuntman being killed.]
Although the producers did their damndest to de-interesting-ify Shark!, the film is not without some distinctly Fullerian moments. Most notable is the inclusion of the young cigar smoking, Short Round-esque pickpocket, referred to as Runt (Carlos Barry). This was an obvious autobiographical touch. Working up through the ranks of a major New York paper at a very young age, the hard-bitten Fuller was mature beyond his years. Many of his films (The Steel Helmet, Park Row) include such precocious young characters. Unless someone can give me evidence to the contrary, I will always contend that young Sammy emerged from the womb smoking a stogie.
[Artist's rendition of a young Sam Fuller]
Autobiographical elements are also present in Reynolds' character Caine. Although Fuller complained of the then TV actor being unprofessional, the future star does give a decent performance here. Echoing Gene Evans performance in The Steel Helmet and Richard Widmark's in Pickup on South Street (and indeed any of Sam Fuller's heroes) Reynolds conveys a fuck it all attitude quite in fitting with his character's hard bitten realism. He's a bastard, but as Jerri Blank would say, "When I make the wrong choices, I'm doing it for all the right reasons." Frequently bucking the system, and playing against Hollywood's rules, Fuller could quite identify with these outsider characters.
Despite such Fuller touches, however, everything seems off. Sure, many of the right Sam Fuller notes have been hit, but all of the soul has been removed. I am of the opinion that Fuller, in fact, did not direct this picture, but rather that the producers used his non-union Mexican equivalent, Sam Fullero.