Sam Fuller’s Shark is available on DVD from Troma Entertainment. The poor DVD transfer is a disservice, but not being able to see the film would be an even greater disservice. What is one to do in this situation? In an annoying intro to the film, the excitedly idiotic Lloyd Kaufman I believe said that they acquired the rights, meaning this was not a public domain situation. He seemed to imply in his frenzied delivery that the outtakes were not available so that a reconstruction of Sam Fuller’s original vision was not possible (the producers apparently interfered with this film, which is something I was vaguely aware of). That’s all well and good, but this seemed to me to be a transfer of a 16mm print of fairly poor quality. The sound especially was atrocious and sounded to me like a weak 16mm mono track. (This is supposition on my part.) The transfer of what is already a poor source seems only fair at best. Either the print itself is too dark or the transfer was not done properly to account for this, or a combination of both. In any case, many of the night scenes are unwatchable. The final evidence suggesting a 16mm print would be the 1.33 aspect ratio. This disservice to the film could have been avoided by hunting down a 35mm print and spending money on a proper transfer. My guess is they had this 16mm print in their closet and got the rights so they could make some money.
Is the film worth seeing anyway? Yes, it is good, solid Sam Fuller work. The interference by the producers (assuming it is true) has not taken away from Sam Fuller’s style. The fight scenes (although spoiled by this transfer since they take place at night) seem drawn from the same well as those in Pickup on South Street. The dialogue sounds clearly like Fuller’s throughout. The weakness is in the shark footage. Since this is just an Internet writing outlet, and since I need to remove excuses for procrastinating writing blog entries, I have not researched this, but I wonder what the quality of shark movies had been up to that point (1969). If it was breaking new ground, then perhaps some of the weakness of the shark scenes can be forgiven. In any case, whether it can be excused or not, they are in effect very weak scenes. Many times there are just lame shots of sharks swimming around with a big light shining obviously down on them. (It would be pure speculation to wonder if perhaps the likeliest interference by the producers was the insertion of as much poor shark footage as possible, especially since their movie is entitled Shark.)
The movie is undermined because these shark scenes, including the opening one, lack power, danger, thrills or scariness. Fuller often liked a grabber of an opener to set the movie hurtling into motion. In light of that it seems very likely story structure-wise that the opening was Fuller’s idea (it is certainly unconventional, opening with quiet, calm underwater scenes with no music, no credits, no story, no explanation or context for what we are seeing) and that the blame for the weakness of its execution this time must rest with him. (I’ll report back if I can research further the specific interference by the producers.) It prevents the movie from being great, perhaps even sinking it a notch lower than decent. But all the scenes of dialogue and plot are still excellent, high-quality Fuller to me, and would perhaps be even more engaging with a proper transfer of what appears to be some truly excellent cinematography and especially with the full and properly audible sound track. The cast is also pretty good with personal fave Arthur Kennedy and Barry Sullivan backing up a young and vigorous Burt Reynolds. (One other amateurish touch is Reynolds’ beard appears to change too much in thickness in some early scenes. Producers? I guess admirers of Sam Fuller will always want to blame it on someone other than Sam!)
I’ll have to hunt for an other-region DVD that may be of better quality (perhaps DVD Beaver knows of one).
After writing the above paragraphs, I watched the DVD’s bonus materials, which did a pretty good job of explaining some of the background of the film and what exactly happened to it. (Unfortunately, I delayed writing this for some time after watching these pieces, so I apologize for any inaccuracies.) It seems Fuller did finish the film and deliver a cut, but that the producers (independent Mexican ones) recut it, editing scenes by chopping parts up to tighten them up, or something to that effect. In any case, from what was said in the bonus interviews, it doesn’t sound like the studio was responsible for the poor shark scenes that undermine the film. What I mention above as being the strong Fuller aspects seem to have shone through despite what editing was done to them. Perhaps they would have been even stronger without the interference. (The main informative interview on the DVD was with Jerome Rudes, one of the collaborators on Fuller’s posthumous autobiography, A Third Face.)