Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sharky’s Machine (1981)

After a larger drug bust goes badly wrong, macho cop Sharky (Burt Reynolds) is moved – really demoted – from his beloved narcotics division he had working like the titular machine (until it didn’t work) to vice, in this time and movie a place made exclusively for busting street walkers. Until Sharky acquires a list with the names and phone numbers of some high grade prostitutes working for a mystery man lamely known only as The Man (later turning out to be played by Vittorio Gassman, of all people). One of these girls, only known as Dominoe (Rachel Ward) seems to have political protection that suggests a certain degree of corruption, so Sharky convinces vice squad head Friscoe (Charles Durning) to let him surveil her, with a bit of help from colleagues Arch (Bernie Casey), Papa (Brian Keith) and Nosh (Richard Libertini).

Because that’s how things in the movies go (and because this is Rachel Ward in the early 80s), Sharky falls for the object of his surveillance badly, which will turn out to be quite the motivating factor when the corruption case turns into something even bigger and a crazy drugged up killer with the awesome name of Billy Score (Henry Silva) makes his appearance.

Sooner or later, most actors seem to get the directing bug. Some of them (not naming names but you know the type) get in the habit of trying to pull films out from under actual directors who know what they’re doing, generally ruining the films that get in the way of their egos. Others go about the business the honest way and make their own damn movies. Some of these turn out to be Sarah Polley, Charles Laughton, Joel Edgerton, or Clint Eastwood (or on a comparative level), while more than I’d like to think about just make pretty dreadful directors. The handful of films Burt Reynolds directed aren’t usually counted among the exalted ones but they are most certainly not products of a guy just coasting on being Burt.

Sharky’s Machine is usually seen as Reynolds’s best directorial effort, and while it certainly isn’t an unforgettable experience, it is a good cop movie a bit along the line of a Dirty Harry film if Harry had an emotional life, if one whose tone tends to swing from the more naturalistic to the nearly cartoonish at a moment’s notice.

The film’s major weakness is certainly the treatment of the parts of the plot concerning the romance (such as it is) between Sharky and Dominoe. It’s a bit Laura, it’s a bit Rear Window (or at least concerned with the same kind of obsession as thrillers with voyeuristic aspects) but the relationship of the characters once they actually meet never rings true to me. In part that’s because neither the script nor Reynolds manage to sell Sharky as a true voyeuristic obsessive. Nor does the film convince me that Dominoe (particularly given the background the film sketches for her) would in any way or form honestly fall for the guy. On the plus side, that latter failing has also something to do with the fact that Reynolds the director tries to stay on the right side of male gazing at the pretty woman by treating her as an an actually likeable instead person instead of only a desirable object, so turning her into the more manipulative character that would have a reason to sleep with Sharky would have been right out. Which is not at all the sort of thing I would have expected Burt Reynolds of all people to think about. So much for preconceptions.

Of course, this surprising thoughtfulness does fit nicely with one of Sharky’s Machine’s great strengths: Reynolds’s willingness and ability to step back and give his co-actors space to shine. Now, this is Reynolds’s film in the sense that he is in most of the scenes, is clearly the main character, and so on, but it doesn’t feel like an ego trip. Reynolds directs like a guy who truly appreciates the Richard Libertinis and Bernie Caseys of this world, so every one here gets a couple of scenes to shine, to do and say something interesting and not be Reynolds’s foil but have Reynolds be theirs for a bit. These scenes are a joy to watch and have the added virtue of making the audience care about these guys when things become dangerous.

Then there’s Vittorio Gassman’s wonderful outing as what is basically a cartoon villain, the kind of guy who probably would have an awesome secret lair if that sort of thing did fly down there in Atlanta, and so has to make up for it by having a trio of Asian enforcers right out of a Sonny Chiba flick, and Henry Silva giving the craziest and creepiest performance of a career full of this sort of role as his hitman brother. Silva’s as beautifully unhinged here as I have ever seen him, so thanks for that, too, Burt.

Visually, the film is not particularly fancy, apart from a handful of the more suspenseful scenes when Reynolds shows a good eye for squeezing tension out of the play of light and shadow, and for letting the audience hear instead of see certain acts of violence. And while it is not fancy, the film does follow the visual rules of late 70s crime filmmaking excellently, providing clarity when that is asked for and obscurity when that fits a given scene.

What more can you ask of a director, Burt Reynolds or not?

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