Operation White Shark

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Fairly or not, Eurospy films are generally regarded as cheap knock-offs of the James Bond movies. But there is cheap, and then there is cheap. Anyone who has actually watched a significant number of these films knows that there are a rare few that don’t appear cheap at all, and even glance — if barely — at the kind of production values seen in the 007 franchise. Others occupy a comfortable middle ground, and are able to succeed as long as their ambitions don’t outstrip their means. Then, of course, there are those on the other end of the spectrum that are so visibly poverty ridden that you almost wonder why the filmmakers even bothered.

I say “almost” because many of those bargain basement espionage thrillers have a unique charm all their own. And that charm is inseparable from the specific challenges faced by the cash poor filmmaker in tackling the genre. The annals of cut-rate filmmaking are stuffed with examples of horror and suspense films that have succeeded despite low budgets due to their shrewd use of mood and atmosphere. But mood and atmosphere, as well as an emphasis on that which is unseen, are at the very core of those genres. By contrast, the modern spy thriller, especially as defined by the Bond films of the 1960s, is more of a “show me” genre, generally depending on the kind of awe inspiring set pieces, lavish sets, and heedlessly destructive stunts that all add up to one big spectacle of conspicuous consumption. As a result, anyone who would attempt to take on such type of film with a budget insufficient for the average sitcom episode has to, at the very least, generate a certain amount of underdog appeal.

But beyond such default b team appeal, certain of these films have a distinct peculiarity of tone that makes them almost hypnotically watchable. The fact that these films are necessarily unable to portray so much of what the scope of their narratives suggests provides them with a weird elliptical quality, one that stands in stark contrast to the emphasis on action, physicality, and material display typical of the more well appointed movies that inspired them. As a compulsive cult cinema watcher, I’ve become accustomed to asking myself, “Did I just see that?” But with these movies I’m more likely to ask, “Did I just not see that?”

A good example of this occurs in Operation White Shark, in a little episode that I like to call “The Scuba Battle That Wasn’t.” In this scene, our secret agent hero puts on his scuba gear and goes for what he has no reason to expect will be anything other than a routine reconnaissance dive. And from what we can see — just barely, due to the murky underwater photography — that is exactly what it is, represented by a couple brief shots of him paddling around alone beneath the harbor’s surface. We then cut to an anonymous radio operator, on board one of the bad guys’ ships, informing someone off-screen that a terrible underwater fight has just taken place, one that has left one of their team dead and another mortally wounded, while failing to result in the hero being captured or killed as hoped. Shortly afterward we see the hero emerging from the surf to tell his colleague the same tale.

All of this so strongly suggested that an actual scuba battle had been depicted — because, seriously, why would you talk about something like that in this kind of movie without at least trying to show it? — that I actually re-watched the scene in order to confirm that it hadn’t. Yet, rather than being disappointed, I found myself feeling a kind of hushed respect for how the sequence so blatantly acknowledged and then shat upon audience expectations. It was almost as if the missing event’s obligatory nature was enough to stand in for the event itself. The only thing that could have driven the point home more would have been if both the radio operator and the hero, in talking about the battle, had described it as being “just like the one in Thunderball“.

Elsewhere, Operation White Shark — like the aforementioned The Devil’s Man — uses a visual grammar so limited by its means that it becomes almost autistically fragmented. Establishing shots are often eschewed, and the sparseness of sets means that they, at best, merely evoke the locations they are meant to represent rather than actually stand in for them. This all contributes to a sense of disorientation on the part of the viewer that gives the film a sort of half-remembered dream quality — again in very sharp contrast to the blunt physics of the standard, action oriented spy film.

Yet, to Operation White Shark‘s credit, no attempt is made to hide any of these shortcomings. In fact, the film is almost obstinate in the way it rubs its own cheapness in the viewer’s face. We are, after all, tipped off from the very opening minutes as to just how dire things are. In that inaugural scene, we find ourselves in a small office occupied by our hero’s superior. True to Operation White Shark‘s reductive aesthetic, we’re never informed of what organization this fellow belong to, be it Interpol, the CIA, the FBI, or the Salvation Army. But, what’s most noteworthy is the office itself — or, rather, the “office” — which appears to have been hastily assembled from a random assortment of cast off furniture and knick-knacks, and, more importantly, is not enclosed within four walls, but instead surrounded by a floor length electric blue curtain with a wall clock droopily pinned to it. This curtain serves not only as a flag of impoverishment but also an invitation to speculation on the part of the viewer; it’s just so there that one can’t help but wonder what might be seen if one were able to pull it back: A bare sound stage? A Roman side street? The producer’s living room?

Whatever the case, it quickly becomes clear that our visit to Curtain Guy’s office is for the purpose of a little pregame exposition, which is all pure 1960s spy movie boilerplate: A kidnapped scientist; a new kind of atomic device that could “destroy all human life” if it should fall into “the wrong hands”; a one week window to recover the device before those wrong hands that it’s fallen into start touching all over it; a clandestine atomic laboratory — perhaps located beneath the Mediterranean Sea — that needs to be located before it’s too late. The superior then outlines for the attendant anonymous functionary those attributes that the agent assigned to the job must possess: “Perfect understanding of Italian, French, and a complete understanding of nuclear science. And the man must also be an expert sailor.”

Following this meeting, we see the functionary stroll into a depressing looking computer lab — undoubtedly a found location in some university or office building — and present the attendant technician with the previously disclosed requirements. Then, in real time, we watch as that technician slowly threads some reel-to-reel tape into a refrigerator-sized computer and then ponderously shuffles some computer cards. Finally the results come in, and our man, agent Marc Andrews, proves to not only meet all of the desired specs, but is also a black belt in Karate, an expert diver, and a former boxing champion. And with this, honky tonk piano music wells up on the soundtrack.

Our introduction to Marc Andrews comes on what appears to be a repurposed saloon set from whatever spaghetti western was at a break in filming at that particular moment, where Andrews is in the process of having a fistfight with some random guys because — well, because that’s just the kind of guy that Marc Andrews is. The bar phone rings, and it’s Andrews’ superior telling him that he has to go “to Europe” immediately for an assignment. “To EUROPE?”, Andrews responds incredulously, as if unaware that said fabled continent was readily accessible by commercial air travel. Soon, however, his objections are quelled, and he agrees to cut short his vacation in Frontierland and report for duty — partly, he says, because he had always wanted to go to Europe.

Marc Andrews is played by a Utah born actor by the name of Robert Francke, who, at the time of making Operation White Shark, was working under the stage name Rodd Dana. When setting out to do research for this article, I despaired of finding much information at all about Dana, but was instead quite pleased to find that he had allowed himself to be interviewed by cult film journo Michael Barnum a couple years ago for the magazine Video Watchdog. And this brings me to one of the things I love the most about writing about these kinds of movies: learning the often fascinating stories of the people who were involved in making them. Some casual viewers of Operation White Shark might see a guy like Dana as just some no-name actor who appeared in a third rate movie, while in reality Dana lived the type of life that many of them would kill for.

It seems that Dana’s attitude toward the movies he appeared in could pretty much be summed up by the phrase “Sure, what the hell”. A man of many talents and interests, he basically used the film work he did while living in Europe during the 60s as a means of supporting what he described as a “playboy” lifestyle. He had done some bit acting in the States during the 50s, but had actually come to the continent for the purpose of studying medicine at the University of Rome. When he became disillusioned with that pursuit, he began studying for a career as an opera singer, all the while paying the bills with appearances in Italian commercials and film dubbing work. (Though Dana’s character, like all of those in Operation White Shark, is dubbed, that’s still him doing the dubbing.) After a throat condition prevented him from continuing further with his opera singing, he was introduced to the producers of Operation White Shark by co-star Janine Reynaud, whose husband, actor Michel Lemoine, Dana had recently provided the English dialogue for in one of his films.

Operation White Shark would lead to Dana having a brief yet prolific career as a leading man in European genre films — some of it conducted under the name Robert Mark — that would end only after Dana suffered a near mortal injury while filming a never-to-be-released Spaghetti Western in 1969. Throughout that time, Dana dedicated his off hours to living la dolce vita, coming away from the experience with stories about, among other things, partying with Brigitte Bardot and her entourage in St. Tropez. So, in short, you who might regard Rodd Dana as just some failed star of crappy movies would do best to keep your pity to yourselves.

That said, Dana does a decent enough job as Marc Andrews, but also falls prey to some of the same missteps that plagued many other Eurospy leading men. Mind you, being an athlete and former boxer, he’s no slouch in the physical department, and handles all of his own stunt work in the film quite credibly. It’s just that, while Sean Connery exhibited a fair share of smirk and swagger in his role as James Bond, he also had that ineffable quality that suggested that all of that smirking and swaggering was somehow justified. Other actors playing Bond-like characters simply appropriated all that smirking and swaggering of-a-piece, without possessing the gravitas to back it up, and as a result just ended up kind of looking like dicks. (Other Eurospy leading men avoided this pitfall by pushing the act into the realm of parody, like the Kommissar X series’ Tony Kendall, or by injecting it with an extra dose of meanness, as did George Ardison.) Sadly, Dana’s performance slides a bit into that dickish territory here, though, in his defense, his character — like most of those in Operation White Shark — is underwritten to the point of being cipher-like, which doesn’t provide him much guidance beyond those rote paces the genre requires its heroes to walk through. Still, I must admit that, now that I know that performance was subsidizing a bohemian lifestyle brimming with continental sophistication and assignations with exotic young starlets, I find it much more palatable.

Anyway, after spending the flight over from the States necking with some anonymous female passenger, American agent Marc Andrews arrives in the coastal city of Porta Rosa. His first stop in his investigation is a nightclub called the Tattoo Club, where we first meet the film’s femme fatale, Frida Braun (Jess Franco favorite Reynaud), who is regaling the crowd with a lusty Italian pop number. Now the staging of this musical number deserves mention, because it’s so brilliant in terms of being completely visually disorienting that you might think Seijun Suzuki stepped in to guest direct. From our viewpoint, it appears that Frida and her band are performing to an empty room, while her audience is behind her, sitting at tables in a completely different room, craning their necks to get a backside view of her performance through a doorway at the back of the stage. Meanwhile, we see inserted shots of Andrews, standing at a bar that looks suspiciously like the one in the saloon where we first saw him, watching Frida appreciatively, although we never see a master shot that gives us any clue as to where in the room he is supposed to be in relation to her. Whether weird out of intention or necessity, it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, an opinion that’s bolstered by the fact that the song Reynaud is miming is pretty damn cool, too.

After her performance is completed, we quickly learn that Frida is not only an exotic woman of mystery and a passionate pop balladeer, but also a bit of a lesbo. This comes to the fore in an exchange with one of the club’s patrons, the pretty American sketch artist Terry Benson (Franca Polesello). First Frida saucily speculates that Terry’s male clients must really appreciate her “work in the nude”, and then the two of them trade sexually freighted puns on the word “artful”. It’s all very adult and sophisticated. Later we find out that Terry is in fact a colleague of Andrews’, and that all this time she’s been sketching the other patrons of the Tattoo club for the sake of espionage rather than art. Yes, that’s right, rather than just photographing them with a concealed camera — which is not only a well established spy movie trope, but also something that actual spies are known to occasionally do in the real world — Terry instead takes the time to render each of their likenesses in charcoal. In any case, Andrews is impressed by her work, handing her what is undoubtedly his highest compliment by telling her that she should draw for Playboy.

Terry informs Andrews that a number of the club’s habitués are underworld types who would normally be at war, but who now appear to have formed some kind of temporary alliance in pursuit of some common criminal goal. Following the twin clues, I think — like so much in Operation White Shark, it’s established in only the vaguest manner — of the murder of a local diver and the group’s activity on a yacht moored just off the coast, Andrews seeks to work his way into the gang by posing as a professional diver with a criminal past. Soon he learns that this gang is not, in fact, the one that kidnapped the scientist and stole the device, but rather a rival group who are trying to locate the secret lab and steal the device for themselves. Hence they hire Andrews to make a dive in search of the place, upon which he is attacked by a mysterious scuba team and only escapes with his life after a vicious battle that leaves one of them dead and another mortally injured. Or so we’re told. Like I said, all we really see are a couple of barely discernable shots of an anonymous diver — supposedly Andrews — swimming around by himself under the harbor.

The twist of having there be two rival gangs, whom Andrews ultimately plays off against one another to his own advantage, adds sort of a Yojimbo element (or perhaps, more in keeping with the likely original influence, a Fistful of Dollars element) to Operation White Shark‘s plot that, to my mind, earns screenwriter Luigi Angelo a couple points for creativity. Beyond that, it’s pretty much spy movie 101, with only the movie’s odd, shadow-play-like minimalism to provide it with any novelty. First off there’s the obligatory attempts by the main baddies to finish off Andrews, starting with an attack by a group of black body-stocking-ed female karate assassins — all with the letter “H” emblazoned on their chests — that takes place on a street set that’s cramped and phony-looking to the point of being unintentionally expressionistic. Then, of course, there’s Andrew’s strategic wooing of one of the gang’s female members, which is also presented in an almost comical visual shorthand, along with that staple of the low budget Bond knock-off, people in boats shooting at one another.

Finally, Andrews goes diving on his own and locates the secret lab, which is located inside a vast underwater cavern. This sequence was shot in a combination of real locations, both in a natural cave somewhere in the north of Italy, and inside La Casacia, an actual nuclear power facility on the outskirts of Rome. It was at this latter location that Dana, according to his own account, ended up getting contaminated, and had to be mercilessly scrubbed by technicians before being allowed to leave. Needless to say, both of these setting are more impressive than any others we see in Operation White Shark, and the filmmakers, being well aware of that fact, end up providing us with an awful lot of footage of Rodd Dana prowling around in them. It’s a rare moment of egregious padding that makes us appreciate just what a good job director Filippo Walter Ratti has done keeping things moving up to this point, even if he hasn’t been quite so conscientious in terms of actually presenting those things in a clear manner.

The Operation White Shark crew’s understandably limited access to the nuclear power facility put some obvious limits on the scope of the action they could film there, and Andrews’ rescue of the captured scientist ends up being somewhat anticlimactic as a result. It basically boils down to him creeping down some anonymous corridor, walking in a random door (probably an office that happened to be vacant at the moment), and then walking out again with the scientist in tow, after which the scientist is summarily shot dead by a guard who happens upon the scene. Oh, well. At least we have intermittent moments of Dana gunning down some of those female guards in the “H” emblazoned bodysuits, along with a few radiation suited minions, to break things up, as well as a nice, trailer-appropriate moment where he rides a crane across the length of the facility for no apparently pressing reason. Then there’s an odd bit where Andrews decides to take time out from his getaway to strangle a technician who was just minding his own business with a pair of robotic arms — I’m guessing because Ratti saw the robotic arms, was struck by the idea that it would be a cool thing to do, and was granted permission to do so by the facility managers.

Indeed Operation White Shark tells its way around a great deal of its story, to the extent that the film almost feels haunted by the vestigial remnants of all those events that could only be included by way of allusion or vague reference. But it must be said that there are also ways in which the film delivers in spades. Chief among those is the musical score by Robby Poitevin; from the urgent, minor key melodies played on reverbed electric guitars, to the baroque swaths of harpsichord, to the jazzy flute swirls, to the ominous, staccato bass lines, the score delivers everything that I’d want from a 1960s spy movie soundtrack, and is propulsive and catchy to boot.

I’ve also already mentioned director Ratti’s tight pacing, which is especially impressive given the fact that so much of the film’s action is only suggested. That said, Ratti and crew go all out — or, at least, all out to the best their circumstances allow — to provide their audience with the type of slam-bang final act that other, better spy films have conditioned them to expect. Shots of a random helicopter flying overhead are combined with shots of charges being set off on the surface of the water to give the impression of an aerial attack. Cars chase each other at convincingly fast speeds without even appearing to have been sped up in post. There are some water skiing assassins, a mud fight, and even a pretty nasty scene of implied sexual torture, in which Frida’s goons rough up Terry as their boss watches in a state of obvious arousal. But, most importantly, we have Rodd Dana, doing his professional best to appear suitably iconic while throwing punches and striking dramatic poses with his machine gun.

In that Video Watchdog interview, Dana characterized the production of Operation White Shark as being somewhat tempestuous, with “a fight each day” between producers, director and writers, and “a party every night” to cool heads and loosen everybody up for the next day’s shooting. In a way it sounds like a microcosm of the whole crazy world that was the Italian commercial film industry at that time. While the film was no blockbuster — and at its obvious low cost, it likely didn’t need to be — it was successful enough to warrant Dana being offered lead parts in successive Eurospy ventures, among them films like Handle With Care and Sicario 77, Vivo o Morto, both of which he fronted under his Robert Mark moniker.

Dana would return to acting on screen only very infrequently after his brush with death, but would continue working as a voice artist. This lead to him taking on what I would have to consider, thanks to my peculiar personal proclivities, his crowning career achievement: providing the English language voice for Dr. Gori, the compulsively hand-gesturing simian bad guy in the classic Japanese superhero TV series Spectreman. Sure, Dana has a lot of other impressive credits — appearing in Cleopatra alongside Elizabeth Taylor, and in Hornet’s Nest with Rock Hudson, among them –- but if providing the voice of Dr. Gori were the sole credit on his resume, that would be, to my mind, laurels enough for him to rest upon for the remainder of his days.

Still, I don’t want my enthusiasm for Dr. Gori to result in me giving Operation White Shark short shrift. Because it really is a movie that I enjoy quite a lot. This might seem surprising, given the myriad shortcomings that I’ve detailed above. Indeed, in the family of Eurospy films, it’s kind of the runt of the litter. But, as is often the case with runts, it’s hard not to love it. Even if there is so little of it to love.