Review: SHARK! (1969)

A realistic film became too real! Shark will rip you apart!

SHARK! (1969)
Not Rated / Color / 93 minutes
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Also Known As: Caine
Purchase it: Amazon.com (DVD) | Amazon.com (Blu-ray)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Summer of the Shark 2017 continues onward with a journey into the murky depths of  nostalgia! The third movie I’ve chosen for this annual marathon is Samuel Fuller’s SHARK, a film I became acquainted with back in the early 90s. I discovered SHARK as I was wandering though a retail store (K-Mart perhaps?) and passed a rack full of VHS tapes. As I was shuffling through various titles (most likely searching for Godzilla flicks I didn’t already own) I suddenly came across a copy of SHARK!

It had a very simplistic cardboard sleeve design: It was all black with the film’s title in bold red font at the top. Below it had a picture of a Sand Tiger Shark and the tagline “It Will Rip You Apart in a Frenzy of Threshing Limbs!” Needless to say, I was sold! For a kid who was obsessed with sharks (and dinosaurs), this was a huge find! I simply had to have it, and I pleaded with my mother to buy it for me! Despite her protests, she eventually caved.

Once I was home, I eagerly popped that bad boy into the VCR, and was soon disappointed to find that the much-touted shark wasn’t the central focus of the film. Still, I did end up watching the movie a few times, and faithfully kept the tape until I phased out my massive VHS collection over a decade later. It has been well over twenty years since I last viewed SHARK, so I figured that now was as good a time as any to revisit it.

… but screw that one guy who actually got killed by a shark.

SHARK follows the exploits of a charming, and often reckless gunrunner named Caine (Burt Reynolds). When we first meet him, Caine is trying to sneak a cache of weapons over the Sudanese border. Just as he’s about to be let through, the border guards decide to take a second look at the cargo in his truck. Upon a more thorough inspection, the guards find a hidden stash of guns, forcing Caine to make his escape. During a brief chase through the desert, he ends up ditching his vehicle over a cliff, then hitchhikes to the nearest village.

Caine ends up at a small port town bordering the Red Sea, and tries to maintain a low profile while he devises an escape plan. This proves to be difficult because local lawman Inspector Barok (Enrique Lucero) is keeping a close eye on newly arrived smuggler, and aims to deport him as soon as possible. But fate soon intervenes when a pair of Americans hire Caine to aid them in a “scientific study” at sea.

Seeing as how a shark ate the last guy that was working for them (as seen in the opening moments of the movie), Professor Dan Mallare (Barry Sullivan), and his assistant Anna (Silvia Pinal), decide that Caine would be a perfect (i.e. expendable) replacement. Unfortunately they underestimate him, as Caine discovers the real reason they continue to dive in shark-infested waters. He blackmails the scheming duo, which leads to a series of double-crosses, and several characters ending up as shark bait during the climax!

Sam Fuller’s SHARK is one of those movies with a backstory that is far more interesting that the film itself. There was reportedly a lot of behind-the-scenes drama during the making of this film, which culminated with director Sam Fuller quitting before production was fully completed. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the producers’ insistence on using the tragic death of stuntman Jose Marco as a promotional gimmick.

“What’s the safe word? WHAT’S THE SAFE WORD?!”

Apparently Jose was attacked and killed by a (I believe) Gray Reef Shark that wasn’t properly sedated. Attempting to turn lemons into lemonade, the producers purposely changed the film’s title from CAINE, to SHARK, in order to attract those sweet, sweet exploitation dollars. This did not sit well with Sam Fuller, who left the project in the hands of its producers, and veteran film editor Carlos Savage.

The end result was a film that Fuller “no longer recognized,” and wished to have his name taken off of. However SHARK’s backers refused, and the rest as they say, is history. Though I wish Fuller got to put together a rough cut of the film before his departure, the edit of SHARK that is currently available is entirely watchable. The movie is well-shot, and the editing is adequate for the most part. However SHARK slows down a lot after the opening shark attack, and Caine’s failed smuggling attempt.

The movie doesn’t start getting interesting until the third act kicks in, when Caine discovers that the Professor and Anna are diving for a lost shipment of gold bars. This leads to two decent brawls (one of which results in Caine’s sidekick, “Runt” becoming injured), and a chain of betrayals during the film’s final act. Luckily, Burt Reynolds keeps things chugging along as the charismatic Caine, a career criminal with his own set of morals.

He’s a romantic, yet has no problem delivering a knock out punch to a woman that has deceived him. He’s a man’s man, who doesn’t back down from a fight, but he’s also softhearted enough to care about (and for) a street urchin. Burt Reynolds’ Caine is a complex character, and ends up carrying the entire movie on his shoulders. And he has to because SHARK is severely lacking in actual sharks!

When your film needs saving…. Caine is able!

There are four or five scenes in the movie where the humans interact with the fearsome fish, and to this movie’s credit, it gets pretty intense. (Not since MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH have I seen people get this close to actual sharks in a movie!) There are several moments where the stuntman actually grapples with a shark, and part of me wonders if some of this footage featured the final moments of poor Jose Marco. I mean, the producers couldn’t have been that unscrupulous to actually edit his death into the finished film…. could they? (Oh my….)

In the end, SHARK is a mediocre adventure film about backstabbing treasure-divers, that guest-stars the occasional shark. There are a handful of good stunts, and the cast is decent enough: Arthur Kennedy’s drunken Doc has some good lines (“What a wonderful world it would be, if alcohol flowed through our veins.”), and Silvia Pinal has that special something that draws you in whenever she’s on the screen. Even so, it isn’t enough to raise the bar for a film that just isn’t all that interesting.

If you’re jonesing for some killer shark action, look elsewhere Vault Dwellers, as there are plenty of other entries in the sub-genre that deliver the goods. But if curiosity gets the better of you, you could do a lot worse than SHARK. Burt Reynolds is fantastic as Caine and Sam Fuller’s guiding hand is still felt throughout the movie, even though he disowned it shortly after its theatrical release. And it’s that Fuller/Reynolds combo that redeems SHARK enough to earn it a rating of: