Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Reprise – Friday Forgotten Film: Sharky’s Machine

sharkysmachine

To put it mildly, Burt Reynolds has had an interesting career — feel free to read in the old Chinese blessing slash curse at this point. His charismatic presence with early recurring roles on the Gunsmoke and Riverboat television series got many people’s attention (mine included, as a kid transfixed with TV). He parlayed that into larger and larger film roles.

His rendition of the Lewis Medlock character in John Boorman’s adaptation of the great James Dickey novel, Deliverance, was the breakthrough impetus for that big screen vocation. Its impact skyrocketed him during the ’70s, and his subsequent films successfully propelled him to the #1 box office crown.

The world was his oyster.

290710.1010.AThen, the ’80s collided with it like a bad meteor movie. The evidence becomes painfully clear when the films of that span are mentioned (some of which were purely for the paycheck, no doubt). PaternityStickRent-A-Cop, any of the Cannonball or Smokey and the Bandit sequels, among them. And one notorious flick in particular, signaled which direction his path then headed.

It’s not that all of them were particularly or uniformly bad, mind you. Okay, okay… Stroker Ace really and truly does suck. Although, I refuse to pile on since the man did pay for that transgression by meeting the future ex-Mrs. Reynolds (Loni Anderson) in that shoot. I guess it’s too easy for some to disparage the former box office king’s body of work these days.

Still, it’s not like we’re not talking about a Steven Seagal, direct-to-video and cable show career dump. Burt’s has been more phoenix-like. Some of the films during those Reagan years were entertaining genre-fare and unjustly maligned. Believe it or not, I still have the DVD of Heat, not Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece but the adapted William Goldman novel from ’86, in my library.

Sharkey and crew

But before his métier missteps, Reynolds did accomplish something notable at the start of that decade. He directed, his third outing behind the camera, and starred in the highly underrated 1981 thriller, Sharky’s Machine. It remains a brutal yet exciting film that played to the actor’s strengths and displayed the actor’s unanticipated knack for film direction.

Adapted from William Diehl’s1 first novel, it had a lot of things going for it. Including, a really strong supporting cast in Rachel Ward (the Olivia Wilde equivalent for those of you born after Ronald Reagan was in office), Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Bernie Casey, Richard Libertini, and Earl Holliman. Not to mention a scenery chewing performance by Vittorio Gassman and another menacing role for the undervalued performer, Henry Silva, as the baddies.

MBDSHMA EC042As well, I think the film’s storyline provides some thought-provoking contrasts (with screenwriting credit to Gerald Di Pego). It certainly retains some superb aspects of bleaker crime films of the ’70s — the use of the late Hari Rhodes of Detroit 9000 fame in a memorable early appearance was a wonderful touch by the filmmakers — while playing out against the newer, more sanguine era we were entering.

One can see remnants of the previous decade’s decline and the introduction of the spending excesses to come (along with the big hair and padded shoulders, and the approaching Just Say No campaign). Even its purposeful humor (another trait of the good ol’ boy Reynolds’ screen personality) was used effectively to balance out some of the grim and surprising violence (for its day) in the film.

“I’m gonna pull the chain on you, pal. And you wanna know why? ‘Cause you’re fucking up my city. ‘Cause you’re walking all over people like you own them. And you wanna know the worst part? You’re from out of state.”

burt on the moveFor the most part, Reynolds showed unforeseen skill as a director, here. The tracking shot at the start of the film (as part of the opening credits) was particularly deft — and observe its reverse for the film’s closing credits. No doubt, Burt was helped tremendously by working with the late William A. Fraker in this endeavor. Seen today, the scene’s progression, right up to the director’s title credit, still has a marvelous flow to it, in fact.

And it employed the classic Randy Crawford / Crusaders song, Street Life, convincingly to set the mood for that entire sequence. If you think about it, all this was 16 years before Quentin Tarantino would re-use the same tune for 1997’s Jackie Brown in an equally downright inner-city themed excerpt.

SharkyTIn looking back at this film, I couldn’t help but notice Reynold’s continual use of the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel skyscraper (in downtown Atlanta, Georgia) as a motif throughout the movie. Some would say it was used as a phallic symbol in the picture. Not surprising, given the testosterone clearly on display. Plus, Burt deserved a good bit of credit for staging some compelling action sequences, with him as a player in almost all of them. Never the shy one, he.

Even with its shadowy (and I freely acknowledge somewhat convoluted) plot, Sharky’s Machine still managed to include some gratifying touches in this 80s actioner. Some of its included martial arts aspects, which made their way into Hollywood film byway of the ‘Me Decade’s Kung Fu wave, are particularly well done.

As it happens, the fight sequence in Nosh’s basement between Sharky and the Chin brothers (portrayed by the great Bruce Lee ally and famed martial arts instructor, Dan Inosanto and Weaver Levy) was a favorite of mine and choreographed quite well. It’s not a long fight, but it was brutally efficient and highlighted western and eastern fighting styles to great and succinct effect.

Sharky'sMachine-DanInosanto-400-1&2-sg

Additionally, the torture sequence on the boat was startling for its tension, explicit threat, and carnage (seen and unseen), and hardly mentioned these days, but should be. All of it made for a highly entertaining thriller that returned substantial box office back in its day and showed audiences that this actor could deliver as a filmmaker, as well.

It’s too bad Burt Reynolds didn’t capitalize on this film and stretch out, like his friend and City Heat co-star Clint Eastwood, into more challenging roles. Certainly, not wait till later to try his hand at more directing duties. The dearth of these meant a considerable slump we’d have wade through till his noteworthy supporting roles in Striptease and Boogie Nights, and headline TV’s Evening Shade [thanks, SFF], helped to resurrect that career in the 90s.

SharkysMachine-Still2

In particular, Sharky’s Machine as a film has suffered indirectly by Burt’s drop in fame, and been almost criminally forgotten, especially by what the studio has not provided aficionados or viewers. Warner Brothers released a barebones DVD back in October 1998 and without a hint of a needed update in the works. Worse, it’s horribly cropped. The feature’s original Panavision widescreen (1.85:1) framing was chopped to full screen (1.33:1) on the U.S. disc.

sharky-bdThankfully, the WB finally released this in high definition on April 2015, with a closer aspect ratio (1.78:1) to its original.

To watch it again in its proper aspect ratio, and once more appreciate Mr. Fraker’s magnificent cinematography for this retrospective, I needed to get my hands on the Australian Region 4 disc. While the R4 DVD still had no extras or features to speak of, it remains the only way to genuinely appreciate the widescreen camera work of this neglected film.

Makes you wonder what the WB folk are thinking, or missing out on.

2510c0a398a06f23911af110.LLastly, if for nothing else watch this film just to listen to one of the absolutely great soundtracks ever compiled for a genre film. It’s a wondrous mix of needle-dropped tunes by jazz and blues notables like Randy Crawford, Flora Purim, Peggy Lee, Manhattan Transfer, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Julie London, Chet Baker, Eddie Harris, and Doc Severinsen that will make any old-time music fans out there more than a little joyful.

At one time, I kicked myself  by giving away my copy of that vinyl LP soundtrack years ago, which still is the only media you can find it on. I’ve fixed that by reacquiring the album and putting a turntable back into my life2. As I close this out, let me wish you a great weekend by way of song. The Somewhere, Someway track used as the film’s love theme, and sung by the great Sarah Vaughan. Enjoy.


  1.  Trivia: author William Diehl has a cameo in the film and plays Percy the pimp in the Vice Squad room scene. Diehl was fifty years old and already a successful photographer and journalist when he decided he had not heeded his life calling and began to write that first novel. 
  2. In early-2014, the Varese Sarabande label released the film’s soundtrack on CD, finally. 
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29 Responses to “Reprise – Friday Forgotten Film: Sharky’s Machine”

  1. jackdeth72

    Excellent choice and break down, my friend!

    Great sound track and neon laced on location cinematography. A better than decent story that allowed Mr. Reynolds to show off his early stunt man chops. Memorable rogues gallery of slimy, dressed above their station bad guys.

    Kind of ‘Miami Vice’ before there was a ‘Miami Vice’. With equally gorgeous damsels in distress and Burt confidently blazing trails others like Bruce Willis would follow shortly thereafter.

    Grateful Hat Tip for pointing out one of Diehl’s better early works!

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks for the kind words and observations, Kevin. Yeah, I’d very much agree it was a ‘Miami Vice’ before there was a ‘Miami Vice’. I’d also go on to read some of Diehl’s early novels because of this film.

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  2. cindybruchman

    What a thorough review! I was mesmerized with Burt’s performance in ‘Deliverance’ and then with subsequent flops and ridiculous films like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, whatever talent I saw flickering in ‘Deliverance’ fell out of my mind. Then there came ‘Boogie Nights’ and I was pleasantly surprised and happy for him. I’ve never seen ‘Sharkey’s Machine’.

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    • le0pard13

      This film is certainly one worth seeing, especially for Burt Reynold’s solid work, and that the script channeled some of the well-know ‘Laura’ mystery with surprising grit. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the WB will finally come around and release a new Blu-ray. At the very least, in a proper widescreen presentation, and at most with Reynold’s director’s commentary and extras. Many thanks, Cindy.

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  3. Cavershamragu

    Rally enjoyed the review Mile, thanks (and hey, I’ve got HEAT on DVD review too – in fact I’m reviewing it next week) . I do want to see SHARKY again because I never gave it a fair shot at the time as I got a bit too annoyed that it (or Diehl anyway) ripped off the plot of LAURA without acknowledgement but I’d like to see it again now – thanks for the info about the Australian release – I shall seek it out.

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    • le0pard13

      You make a great point about the ‘Laura’ aspect with ‘Sharkey’s Machine’. I remember some of the film critics back then noted it in their reviews. The R4 is definitely worth tracking down for not shortchanging viewer’s look at DP Fraker’s splendid work. Thanks very much, Sergio.

      p.s., I look forward to your look at HEAT. Will you do William Goldman’s novel, too?

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  4. iluvcinema (@iluvcinema)

    not sure i have seen it sure i was alive when it came out but i would not have been part of the target demo if you catch my drift. i am pretty sure i have heard of it. enjoyed reading your recap of reynolds’ career, very interested and non intuitive path indeed.

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  5. sanclementejedi

    Got to admit I had sort of forgotten about this one. I can’t recall the last time I gave it a watch. Loved Burt in Deliverance and The Longest Yard but he has been in a lot of bad films as well.

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    • le0pard13

      Those two film you’ve mentioned, plus this one, are definitely in the plus column for Burt. There’s more than a few films I wished he’d have avoided. Thanks, my friend.

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  6. mike

    great write up. thanx for the info on the aussie version of the dvd. imo this movie is an under-rated masterpiece. i bought the soundtrack lp to this & was thoroughly joyed & yet disappointed. espacially since it didn’t have the recording of “after hour blues”(?) performed during the bar scene where burt ends up in a black bar while waiting for his partner. if anyone has any info on the artists & the definite name of the song, please let me know. thanx.

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    • le0pard13

      Many thanks, mike. Yeah, you’ll get no argument from me. I really hope someone will finally bring this film to Blu-ray, properly remastered and in the correct aspect ratio. Sharky’s Machine more than deserves it. Good point about that missing track. IMDB has it listed as:

      After Hours
      (Instrumental)
      Performed by Finis Tasby
      By R. Bruce, B. Fayne & A. Parrish

      I need to do some searching to see if it exists on an album somewhere. 🙂

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  7. Victor De Leon

    Oh man! This movie takes me back! I saw this in the theaters like a million years ago and have always been a fan it. I do recall owning it on VHS but never re-purchased it on any other format. I recall wanting to own the score as well because the music was such an integral part of the movie. Need to get it.

    I had forgotten that Fraker shot this. His camera work in the film was stunning and that opening shot while “Street Life” is playing is so incredibly memorable! I need to get my hands on that region 4 dvd. Hope there is a blu ray release sooner than later. This forgotten gem deserves it. It is indeed very overlooked.

    This was an amazing break-down of the movie. What a cool read, Michael. Awesome job, man!

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    • le0pard13

      Great to hear you’re a fan of this one, Vic! One of the entertaining actioners of the 80s, for sure. Thank you so much for the read and kind words, my friend. Much appreciated 🙂

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  8. Ted Saydalavong (@TSayda)

    I’ve seen all of Reynold’s action pictures from the 80s and this one is probably my favorite, although MALONE was quite entertaining until the lame finally that didn’t include any action sequence at all! But I’m glad Warner finally released this one on BD, I haven’t purchased it yet. Nice overview of a forgotten action thriller from era Michael!

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    • le0pard13

      Will be scheduling a viewing of the new blu-ray real soon and I’ll let you know how (hopefully) good it looks, Ted. I see that I stream MALONE on Amazon, so based on your recommendation, I think I’ll give it a go, since I’ve not seen it. Thanks so much, my friend. 🙂

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  9. Jeff Cordell

    I first saw this movie in 1984 when it aired on CBS. Heavily censored at the time the movie had some additional footage added to ensure that it would still meet the minimum amount of airtime. Been a fan ever since. I was ecstatic when I learned that Warner Brothers was finally coming out with a Blu-Ray release. I agree. The movie has been forgotten and that’s a shame. Excellent review.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • le0pard13

      Welcome, Jeff. Any fan of ‘Sharky’s Machine’ will always be so ’round here. 😉

      I think I may have caught that TV premiere, too. I was lucky to have seen this first-run and really got the best of it due to that. And I was so happy to locate a place of honor for that new Blu-ray in my video library. Just wish WB would have had Burt do a commentary and/or doc to distinguish why it’s held up so well and has loyal movie fans such as us.

      Thanks so much for the read and comment. Much appreciated. 🙂

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      • Jeff Cordell

        I’m a longtime film geek. I also have a weakness for B movies and often find myself liking movies that many have forgotten about. Just finished reading a very solid biography about director John Sturges (Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, McQ, The Eagle Has Landed) called “Escape Artist”. If you’re a fan of Sturges I recommend the book.

        Liked by 1 person

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