SHARKY’S MACHINE

Year: 1981
Genre: Detective
Director: Burt Reynolds
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Editor: Dennis Virkler
Music: Al Capps
Screenplay: Gerald Di Pego
William Diehl (novelist)

Major Actors:
Burt Reynolds – Sharky
Rachel Ward – Dominoe
Vittorio Gassman – Victor
Charles Durning – Friscoe
Earl Holliman – Hotchkins
Bernie Casey – Arch
Brian Keith – Papa
Henry Silva – Billy Score
Richard Libertini – Nosh
Joseph Mascola – Joe Tipps
Hari Rhodes – Highball Mary
Not quite ‘noir’, but with recognizable signatures (e.g., the contrasty photography of characters, especially the faces; the nocturnal or night-like time frames for a good deal of the action; a good man almost brought down by the pervasive corruption of ‘the man’; the seductive power of a beautiful woman), Sharky’s Machine is a fast-paced, action-packed, and tightly plotted narrative of big-city vice, from the lowly whore on the street-corner to the high-class hooker turning her thousand-bucks-a-night tricks, the pimps to the powerful, the fixers, the cokeheads, the flashers, the pols, the reeking way that things work.
At the middle of this web of moral decay lurks our favorite fantasy, the ‘man’ who pulls all the strings and owns all of us though we don’t know it. Vittorio Gassman’s Victor is a memorable villain, smooth as the flashy silk he dresses his girls in and deadlier than the empire of scag he controls.
The fix is in.
The plot pusher is a political election for governor of Georgia, the winning candidate running on a platform that was tired already among the ancient Romans: “This time we’re gonna clean this town up.” The candidate himself is, of course, at the heart of the kind of corruption that has made a shit-house of the city.
My use of this imagery is not fortuitous. As in Aristophanic comedy, ‘shit’ becomes in this film at first a leit-motif, an ever-accreting image of the cloacal city and its hyper-venal politicians. It is what people say when things go wrong; it is the way the film opens (in a ‘shit-house’ where a drug bust goes down); it is the way the vice squad’s quarters are characterized, deep as it were in the katabatic bowels of the police building (Sharky makes a joke early in the film about its being the sewer into which the toilets flushed upstairs dump their contents); it is the way Victor is characterized by Sharky (“… and I’ve got my hand on the chain, just waiting to pull it.”). Now, this language is not exceptionable in today’s linguistically tolerant society, but in few movies does this semantic domain attain the status of genuine symbol, as it does here (Full Metal Jacket [1987] in fact deploys the same fecal imagery if for different ends).
In contrast to this stinking emblem of moral putrefaction and decay stands the hopeful imagery of children and their potential for renewal and purity. Early on, Sharky visits the home of his friend Nosh, and is asked to hold and kiss Nosh’s little girl good-night (“We hug in this house”). The young daughters of the sleazy pol running for governor are on prominent display in his campaign appearances, most strikingly so in the final scene when, before his downfall, he holds in his arm one of his lovely little girls. And Sharky comments at one point on how he can’t stop watching the kids on the playground outside his house. It is, in this connection, consistent with important imagery developed throughout the film that the final scene shows Dominoe, happy as a child, on a swing.
Dominoe.
Dominoe is the unattainable hooker Sharky and his men are photographing and taping, illegally (they can’t get a righteous tap on her since she’s “protected”), to learn more about her connections. Sharky falls in love with her, in spite of himself, and what began as a regular wire job becomes increasing painful revelations for him. Dominoe is Victor’s creature, “the very best” of the young girls whom he ‘buys’ at a pubescent age (Dominoe at 12) in order to train them personally as the creative talent in his expensive stable. And she becomes his Trojan horse to secure ownership of Hotchkins, the new governor, as Victor’s front-man for prostitution, drugs, political bribery — the whole dreary catalogue that we always read about in the papers after Heaven knows how many campaigns to clean up this or that city.
There is a lot more to this film, including the obligatory whore with the heart of gold and the macho cop with sensitivity, a really gruesome (and, perhaps, gratuitous) torture scene, often clever dialogue and odd situations (Arch, the black detective who might well have been a philosopher), and the dirty gritty ambience of urban evil.
The music is terrific in Sharky’s Machine, starting with a jazzy opening number and using a slower one at the end. Great renditions of ‘My Funny Valentine’ run through the film, and in a scene where Sharky and Nosh are bugging Dominoe’s pad, the Manhattan Transfer do a swinging take of Bobby Troup’s nostalgic ‘Route 66’ — is it to suggest a travel metaphor for the foot-loose Dominoe?
Be that as it may, like the music, this film really cooks. Watch it!

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