Surveying the Italian popular cinema from the late 1950s to the late 1980s we might draw an initial distinction between those who were able to shape trends and those who had to adapt to them.
In the former, much smaller, category we might place Sergio Leone and Dario Argento:
Leone was not the first to make a western but A Fistful of Dollars signalled a shift from Hollywood style westerns made by Italians to distinctively Italian style westerns.
Argento occupies a comparable position in relation to the thriller, although in his case Bava’s The Girl Who Knew too Much and Blood and Black Lace meant there were already existing distinctively Italian models to draw upon.
In the latter, larger, category we might place Bava, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, Antonio Margheriti, Sergio Corbucci and just about everyone else.
Differences emerge between these filmmakers, however, when we plot their work on a horizontal axis of filone and a vertical axis of approximate accomplishments: Martino made films in all manner of filone and though clearly more comfortable in some than others generally produced work of a relatively high overall quality. Lenzi’s output was equally diverse but also showed more differences in quality if we compare, for instance, his poliziotto films with his forays into comedy.
Then, somewhere in between, there is Enzo Castellari. On the one hand his output is more diverse than that of Leone and Argento. On the other hand it is less diverse than that of the other directors mentioned.
Castellari excels as a director of action, whether in a western, war, crime or – as here – adventure context. Though he sometimes ventured further afield, as with his giallo Cold Eyes of Fear, he also famously turned down the opportunity to direct Zombie. He felt horror was not his thing, and was confident enough of being able to get work on his own terms.
Perhaps reflecting this, The Shark Hunter at times feels a bit like Castellari and his regular screenwriter Tino Carpi re-working Zombie for themselves:
You imagine them thinking of the shark meets zombie scene in Zombie and asking themselves how they could rework and build on it to accord with Castellari’s strengths.
The answer: Remove the zombie, add more sharks as one of the many obstacles in the way of Franco Nero’s protagonist, and generally rework the film as The Deep, all italiana.
Unfortunately this shift still doesn’t quite showcase Castellari at his best.
The main issue, one suspects, is that too much of the action is outwith his control: There are lots of underwater scenes where there was nothing he could really do but issue instructions to the stunt-men and the underwater team. (Have you ever seen an underwater scene which is directed in the same manner as a surface one; are there those trademark Fulci extreme close ups and rack focus in the shark-zombie scene in Zombie?)
But Castellari also doesn’t help matters: The first ten minutes of the film come across like a music video, full of images and sounds – the De Angelis brothers supply the soundtrack, which is very nice in itself – but with minimal narrative significance.
Yes, okay, Nero is the shark hunter.
We get it.
The narrative proper doesn’t begin until 20 plus minutes in and even then we aren’t cued in to Nero’s motivation until much later: His wife and child were killed by a drunk-driver. He was a member of a mysterious organisation. He took advantage of a plane crash to go AWOL. He’s now intent on getting the money that was on said plane, which lies with the sharks...
Moreover, Nero wears a bad wig; think Keoma with a bleach job.
Up against him are (the always welcome) Werner Pocath and Eduardo Fajardo, along with Castellari, who plays a hitman and also shows of his puglistic abilities.
The final scene nicely replays Castellari’s spaghetti western Any Gun Can Play.