Bright Lights Film Journal

Dead in the Water: On Samuel Fuller’s Butchered <em>Shark!</em> (1969)

“From now on we’ll do everything together. Just one big, happy family — father [helps up Mallare], daughter [puts his arm around Anna], and son-of-a-bitch [points to himself].” — from the film

Samuel Fuller’s penultimate film, Shark! [also released as Caine and Man-Eater –ed.] was released on the bottom half of an action double bill in 1970. It played for about three days in one or two theaters and then disappeared, resurfacing only recently on late-night television. Though, for a variety of reasons, the film has none of the artistic integrity of Fuller’s most recent work, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1973), it is somewhat more accessible and certainly worthy of more critical consideration than it has so far received.

Shark! is a magnificent mess, and it’s almost impossible to say why the film doesn’t work — or, more exactly, to assign blame, to put the finger on who did what. The film contains a few sparks of genius, but much of its glitter is not genuine; it flashes in the pan, but there’s still much more mud than gold. Furthermore, Fuller’s dispute with his producers over its final version makes the film particularly difficult to discuss — it puts all criticism of the controversial work (for director-oriented analysis, that is) into the swamp of speculation and conjecture. Just as a Hawks admirer, for example, claims that what’s good about the Hawks-Conway version of Viva Villa is the Hawks half (exteriors and the Mexico City sequence) and what’s bad is Conway’s contribution (interiors), so a Fuller fan credits the best parts of Shark! to Fuller and the worst to those who tampered with Fuller’s original cut. But whatever claims and criticisms are made about Fuller or Shark!, ultimately the film’s failure must stand as one of the best arguments in defense of the much-misunderstood auteur theory: Shark! lacks the single, coherent, unifying intelligence that underlies Fuller’s earlier work from the bleak iconoclasm of I Shot Jesse James (1949), to the offbeat, 42nd-Street Freud of Shock Corridor (1963) and the stark cynicism of The Naked Kiss (1964). Fuller’s characteristically hard-fisted, uncompromising, tight direction has been softened, compromised, and loosened up somewhere along the line in Shark!, and the film’s final version simply makes no sense.

At any rate, Fuller has disowned Shark! and has requested the producers to remove his name from the work. And although his control over the film is apparent in the script, in the direction of actors, and in the shooting of many scenes, the sloppy editing of the film and the poor postsynchronization of the soundtrack reveal the disastrous consequences of Fuller’s absence and of the alteration of his original conception of the film. It’s hardly necessary to explain the director’s disavowal of the “finished” product: the producers’ final cut leaves almost nothing of Fuller in the film but his name on the credits.

If you look closely at the textual emendations of Milton’s Paradise Lost or at Tottel’s metrical/textual emendations of Wyatt and compare the corrections with the original, you often discover that what seemed wrong to these critics made the most sense in terms of the works they edited. In fact, their misreadings frequently become the most useful tools for understanding the poet’s original meaning. Similarly, the errors and stupidity of myopic film producers often damage the most essential aspect or scene in a film. Although we do not have the original version of Shark!, it is possible to get some idea from the film itself and from the remarks that Fuller makes about it of what he is trying to do with the film. In an interview with Eric Sherman and Marty Rubin in The Director’s Event, Fuller talks about Shark! and describes his original ending: “I like the idea of a love affair where the man (Caine: Burt Reynolds) finds out the girl (Anna: Silvia Pinal) has used him. I gave her a great line of dialogue. In the last line of the picture — now I find that the producers have put it in ahead, and it’s no longer the last line — she says to him, ‘We’re both a couple of bastards — only I’m a rich one.’ That’s the whole flavor I wanted. I shot some great stuff. For instance, when the boat is sinking at the end, he takes a lighted cigarette and throws it into the sea. I just stay on that cigarette. A fish sees it (the fish being a symbol of the shark), thinks it’s something, and grabs it — pssshht! (Sound of a cigarette being extinguished). That’s the end of the picture. Now I think they’ve cut it out. A lot of things like that were cut out.”

In the final version, this last shot of the cigarette ended up on the cutting-room floor — replaced by a shot of the girl’s boat sailing off into the sunset. Although the two endings may not, at first, seem that disparate, the difference between them is essential to the film, and an awareness of that difference argues for the superiority of Fuller’s ending. Even though the final shot shows Anna sailing off in a slowly sinking boat, the shot itself is a cliche and as such detracts from the uniqueness and uncompromising integrity of the original story. Fuller’s final shot, which avoids any suggestion of cliche, is not only fresh and exciting, but also remains consistent with the narrative approach to his characters that he has employed in both Shark! and his earlier films. In Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, for example, Fuller’s characters exist in a closed universe of their own (the asylum, Kelly’s profession) from which it is impossible to escape. His favorite last shot — e.g., Crimson Kimono, Forty Guns, The Naked Kiss — is often a paralytic high-angle long shot, or a claustrophobic close-up — e.g., I Shot Jesse James. Whereas his final shot in Shark! reaffirms the closed nature of the universe within which his characters operate, the last shot in the producers’ version — the long shot of the boat sailing away — opens up the film; it leaves the girl’s fate and the action unresolved. By understating the girl’s eventual destruction, the bastardized version of Shark!, unlike Fuller’s version which makes the film’s outcome quite dramatically clear, places Fuller’s story and characters in a slightly ambiguous or uncertain framework and compromises the corrosive cynicism of the director’s final statement.

The editor’s attempt to open up the film reveals itself less clearly but just as damagingly in the insertion (on unmatched stock) of impersonal, irrelevant, “atmospheric” establishing shots of anonymous crowds in a Sudanese marketplace. This spatially disorienting library footage works against the thematic thrust of the film as a whole: it suggests a world outside of that in the film, a world foreign to Fuller’s characters and a world of which his characters remain ignorant. The insertion of such shots creates a sort of open-endedness in the visual narrative and places Fuller’s characters in an alien context of everyday normality.

At times, the editing betrays Fuller’s characters, tries to make sense out of them and seeks to impose an order or rationale on their actions and words. For example, when Caine meets Anna, there is a lot of cross-cutting between the two that sets up each as trying to outwit the other. But the shots themselves are flat and actionless; the backgrounds of each are almost indistinguishable from the other; the composition of the shots tells us nothing about the characters (unlike, for example, the classic cross-cutting sequence in Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train, which puts each character in a distinctive and psychologically revealing environment). When Fuller cross-cut close-ups of two separate, unrelated actions in The Crimson Kimono (1959), he revitalized the nature of the cross-cut — he worked against its conventional function as an ordering device. But in Shark!, the parallel cross-cutting and parallel dialogue on the soundtrack is much too schematic: it establishes a structural clarity of intention and motivation that undercuts the complexity of the characters’ actual encounter a few scenes later.

Nevertheless, Shark! contains some magnificent moments, some brilliantly shot and edited purple passages. Whether these scenes were shot and edited by Fuller himself or by some fisherman who wandered onto the set is of less significance than the actual shots themselves — though I must admit that I myself lean more toward Fuller than the fisherman. The pre-credit, underwater sequence that opens the present version of the film works remarkably well in establishing the moral context within which the relationships in the film operate. The picture begins with long and medium shots of a skin diver as he descends through the blue-green water to explore the ocean floor. Fluid, point-of-view tracking shots bring him to a wreck. The camera tracks along the deck of the ship and cuts to an interior shot as the diver goes down a hatch. He discovers an aqua-lung inside and signs of recent salvage activity. As the diver swims away from the wreck, Fuller cuts to a shark approaching the camera in long shot. The shark attacks the diver and kills him. In the next scene, Anna reimburses the diver’s mother for the loss of her son. The Arab woman takes the money and counts it — first moistening her thumb as professionally as a Newark bookie. Throughout the film, all the relationships between the four central characters are predatory and mercenary. The shark that guards the wreck and attacks divers is not so much a symbol as an extension of the desires and wills of Fuller’s characters. In Shark!, people act like sharks toward each other. The sharks themselves are not separate entities that stand for something else (symbols) or inhabit an alien, hostile universe or adhere to a separate system of morality as they do, for example, in Hawks’ Tiger Shark (1932), but rather, they exist co-extensively in a single temporal and spatial universe with Fuller’s characters. Whereas for Hawks, the surface of the water, the line that divides sea from sky, visually represents both a physical and moral boundary beyond which one cannot safely go, for Fuller, there is no line: his land is shark-infested and his sea is man-infested.

Of all the brilliantly shot underwater sequences, the last is perhaps the best. As Caine and Professor Mallare (Barry Sullivan) load gold into metal baskets and send it up to their ship, someone sends down bloody chunks of fish to excite the sharks, which then attack and kill Mallare. In a single shot, as the last basket of gold moves from the bottom of the frame to the top, the bits of fish tails float down with a graceful flutter from the top of the frame: the equation of the predatory (the bait) with the mercenary (the gold) hammers home the unique moral code of the film and sets up the final sequence of reversals onboard ship that climaxes as each character turns against the other.

Not only the shark attacks but all the fight sequences stand out as the best scenes in the film. When Caine discovers that Mallare and Anna are holding out on him, he forces them to make him their partner. Fuller begins the scene with emphatic, intense close-ups of each character and, as the fight begins, cuts to a high-angle shot that frames the action within the four walls of the room and puts the whole fight within the confinement of a single cell. When Anna enters the fight, Caine knocks her down and proceeds to demolish the room and Mallare along with it. This single-take high-angle action sequence ends with Caine’s victorious lines: “From now on we’ll do everything together. Just one big, happy family — father [helps up Mallare], daughter [puts his arm around Anna], and son-of-a-bitch [points to himself].” Although the remainder of the film doesn’t always stay consistent with it, this scene, in which all three major characters struggle with each other within the context of futility (the four enclosing walls and the high-angle), crystallizes Fuller’s approach to his characters and his story.

If the physical climax of the film occurs during the fight sequences, the emotional climax occurs immediately afterward in an operation sequence. Caine has another, adopted partner, a cigar-smoking orphan he calls Runt (Charles Berriochoa) and to whom he teaches the fine art of thievery. During one of the last fight sequences, Runt is pushed down a stairway and knocked unconscious. The town drunk (Arthur Kennedy), a doctor with the d.t.’s, is fetched by Caine and liquored up so that he can perform a delicate brain operation. Fuller’s frames during this scene are fantastically composed with lines of depth and tension. Bottles of liquor in the foreground and bare light bulbs in the background frame the medium shots of the vertical but bent figure of the doctor and the horizontal body of the boy stretched out on the hotel bar. A high-angle shot, with a ceiling fan slowly rotating in the foreground, sets up the full scene, with the operation and those watching it in the same frame. Then, when Caine threatens to kill Mallare if the boy dies, Fuller cuts to a lateral track, in close-up, of the faces of the onlookers — those indirectly and directly responsible for the attack on the boy. Fuller’s powerfully oppressive use of close-ups and the different quantities of emotion in onlooking faces — all tied together by one continuous camera movement — dramatically heightens the emotional intensity of the scene. Only when the shaky surgeon successfully completes the operation does Fuller relax his use of close-ups and tensely framed compositions.

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Samuel Fuller has always made low-budget films so that he could maintain control over his work (interference on a low-budget film costs money and time, which is the equivalent of money). Most of his films have been written and directed by Fuller, and whatever film he made, you could be sure it was all or almost all his. Eventually, in 1956, Fuller founded his own production company, Globe Enterprises, in order to preserve even greater personal control over his films. The history of Shark!, unfortunate in more ways than one since a Mexican stuntman, Jose Marco, was killed by a renegade white shark that broke through a protective net during filming, is a sad one. Not only was the project taken out of the director’s hands, withheld from release for several years (despite a four-page spread in Life magazine, June 7, 1968, at the time of the stuntman’s death), and finally schlepped out for a quiet, almost anonymous six-day run on the bottom half of a 42nd Street motorcycle bill, but the finished product is a distortion of its director’s original film. The producers’ failure to remove Fuller’s name from the credits of this butchered work constitutes a serious breach of artistic integrity and threatens the independence of countless film­makers. If the industry allows sharkish producers to mangle good movies, what has happened to one of its most brilliant and creative directors, Samuel Fuller, will happen to many other good directors, and there will be no end to the degradation of the cinema’s greatest geniuses.

Note: This article is reprinted from the print edition of Bright Lights, Spring 1975, with the author’s kind permission, as part of our tribute to the centenary of Fuller’s birth in 1912.