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Shark! (Blu-ray Review)

8 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Burt Reynolds, Arthur Kennedy, Barry Sullivan, Silvia Pinal.

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of twilight directors working with future superstars when neither party was at a very commanding point career-wise — though, of course, one can only do this in retrospect because superstardom isn’t predictable. Thus, I’m slumming this week with Shark! — aka Caine — which features a pre-Deliverance/Cosmopolitan centerfold Burt Reynolds under the tutelage of a stylistically shaky Samuel Fuller, who certainly made no claims for the result. Though Fuller recovered with The Big Red One and the even better but unjustly maligned racial hot potato White Dog this one finds the almost folkloric writer-director-maverick at a time when he was probably having trouble raising the money to pay for typewriter ribbons, much less features.

Though Olive’s new Blu-ray and standard DVD mark the first time I’ve ever been able to catch up with Shark!, I do have some personal history here — dating back to the time in my NYU graduate Cinema Studies class when we broke up into groups to dissect assigned titles that were playing New York theaters in early summer, 1970. The politically bent (such as myself) opted for the still strange movie of James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement to see what MGM had made of it, and the Vincente Minnelli enthusiasts leapt at On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. But this was the kind of class where the student majority was deeply into auteur antics (Minnelli auteur antics aside) — and an exclusively male contingent was ecstatic to make the trek out to some grindhouse in Queens (or some other far-out Neptune equivalent that numbered 700-something in the weekly Cue magazine listings of theaters) to see a so-called 1969 release that was just now getting a belated token run. Shark! just wasn’t that easy to see unless you lived near a hillbilly drive-in, of which there were few in the New York area). For 40-plus years, I’ve kind of regretted not taking this goofy odyssey.

Still, the picture is hardly any lost treasure (which, matter of fact, is what motivates the characters here). Instead, it’s the kind of provocatively cast action junk to see to keep your hand in — though as a woman friend of mine likes to say, this is tantamount to masturbation. Reynolds plays the kind of gunrunner in Sudan who’d have fit right in driving one of those nitro rigs in The Wages of Fear. Pursued by what passes for the law, he falls in with a onetime physician now prone to the d.t.’s (five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy); a shady boat owner played by ‘B’-pic royalty Barry Sullivan (refurbishing those credentials here, to be sure); and a trollop associate played by Luis Bunuel favorite Silvia Pinal, who memorably had the title role in the director’s Viridiana and then got cast as “The Devil” in his romp Simon of the Desert. Sullivan and Pinal have some kind of smokescreen going on here where they pretend to be scientists, but they’re really after is sunken booty that’s deeply submerged in waters that are full of toothy you-know-what’s.

For a cheapie likely not shot on the greatest film stock ever invented, the Olive Blu-ray captures a surprising amount of detail if you like sweaty or even grimy faces in close-up. In addition to bookending shark sequences that don’t look faked, there are a couple amusing scenes where Burt (or his stuntman) more or less bench-presses plural bad guys over his head and gives them the big heave — also a Reynolds-Pinal beach bit that apes the sex-in-the-waves classic in From Here to Eternity, a scene that Burt probably enjoyed shooting. Otherwise, it’s important to note that screen-credited Fuller disowned the film over post-production mangling — and, to be sure, some of the edits and sound synchronization are mighty clumsy. Fuller was an indisputable auteur for almost all his career, but you can bet that he missed the production resources he had at 20th Century-Fox during his glory days (though even the three films he made at dime-store Lippert eventually rated a Criterion Eclipse box). Shark! is nothing but a curio for the NYU film school hard core, though the fact that Reynolds went from it to Deliverance in just three years is no puny feat. At least it beat Jaws and Piranha into theaters — though I myself was always waiting for the variation set in Cleveland waters: Carp!

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