American culture changed so profoundly—and so quickly—in the late ’60s and early ’70s that it’s often fascinating to discover artifacts demonstrating attempts by aging artists to update their styles. Cornel Wilde, who became a movie star in the ’50s and later branched into producing and directing films, was well into the twilight of his career when he made Sharks’ Treasure, a strange hybrid of contemporary exploitation-flick tropes and old-fashioned adventure. Wilde avoids coarse language and seems hesitant showing bloodshed and nudity, but he delves wholeheartedly into a subplot predicated upon implied homosexuality. And while the general aesthetic of the picture is so rudimentary and unattractive it looks like any other drive-in trash from the ’70s, Wilde’s old-timey taste manifests in the lone original song, which he composed—first played over a treasure-hunting montage, the cornball tune “Money, Money” seems like it was extracted from some Busby Berkeley musical of the 1930s.
The plot is sufficiently contrived and pulpy to ensure watchability in all but the dullest scenes. In the tropics, eager young dude Ron (John Neilson) approaches cranky boat captain Jim (Wilde) with a proposal to visit a spot where Ron found a gold coin. Research leads Jim to believe that Ron happened upon the location of sunken treasure, so Jim agrees to lead a salvage mission. Joining them are cocksure diver Ben (Yaphet Kotto) and his simple-minded pal, Larry (David Canary). Meanwhile, authorities chase after several escaped convicts, led by homicidal creep Lobo (Cliff Osmond). After a long sequence of Jim’s crew collecting treasure from shark-infested waters, Lobo’s gang shows up to hijack the boat.
To Wilde’s minor credit, the resolution of this storyline isn’t entirely a foregone conclusion, and the body count is fairly high, so Sharks’ Treasure isn’t without, well, teeth. That said, some mighty strange things happen along the way. Lobo is obsessed with his prison bitch, Juanito (David Gillam), whom Lobo forces to wear drag at one point, and the capper to their subplot is weirdly poignant. Clearly proud of his taut physique, Wilde spends most of the movie in tiny swim trunks and performs an exhibition of one-armed pushups. In the movie’s funniest non sequitur, the film cuts for no particular reason to a shot of Jim intently reading a book called Doomsday between salvage dives. If that was meant as foreshadowing, then it perfectly illustrates the clumsiness of Wilde’s artless filmmaking. If not, it’s one more wrong note in a movie full of them.
Sharks’ Treasure: FUNKY