Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Burt Reynolds|
|Produced by||Hank Moonjean|
|Screenplay by||Gerald Di Pego|
|Based on||Sharky's Machine|
by William Diehl
|Music by||Doc Severinsen|
|Cinematography||William A. Fraker|
|Edited by||William D. Gordean|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
Sharky's Machine is a 1981 neo-noir action thriller film directed by Burt Reynolds, who stars in the title role. It is an adaptation of William Diehl's first novel Sharky's Machine (1978) with a screenplay by Gerald Di Pego. It also stars Vittorio Gassman, Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Bernie Casey, Henry Silva, Darryl Hickman, Richard Libertini, Rachel Ward and Joseph Mascolo.
The film was released by Warner Bros. on December 18, 1981, and received mostly positive reviews from critics. Ward was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress.
Tom Sharky, a narcotics sergeant for the Atlanta Police Department, is working on a transaction with a drug dealer called Highball. Another member of the force, Smiley, shows up unexpectedly during the sting, causing the drug dealer to run and Sharky to give chase, ultimately shooting the suspect on a MARTA bus, but only after the wounding of the bus driver. In the aftermath, Sharky is demoted to the vice squad, which is considered the least desirable assignment in the police department.
In the depths of the vice-squad division, led by Friscoe, the arrest of small-time hooker Mabel results in the accidental discovery of a high-class prostitution ring that includes a beautiful escort named Dominoe, who charges $1,000 a night. Sharky and his new partners begin a surveillance of her apartment and discover that Dominoe is having a relationship with Hotchkins, a candidate running for governor of Georgia.
With a team of downtrodden fellow investigators that includes veteran Papa, Arch, and surveillance man Nosh, referred to by Friscoe sarcastically as Sharky's "machine", he sets out to find where the trail leads. During one of the stakeouts, a mysterious crime kingpin known as Victor comes to Dominoe's apartment. He has been controlling her life since she was a young girl, but now she wants out. Victor agrees, but forces her to have sex with him one last time.
The next day, Sharky witnesses Dominoe being killed by a shotgun blast through her front door, killing her and disfiguring her face beyond recognition. Sharky has privately been developing feelings for her while viewing her through binoculars and listening to her bugged conversations. The man who shot her, known as Billy Score, is a drug addict and Victor's brother. He answers to Victor, as does Hotchkins, who is in love with Dominoe, but remains a powerless political stooge under Victor's rule.
Dominoe suddenly turns up, to Sharky's surprise, and is told that her friend Tiffany used her apartment and is the one who was mistakenly shot by Billy Score. Dominoe is convinced that if Victor wants her dead, she is going to be dead, but reluctantly leaves with Sharky to be hidden away at his childhood home in the West End neighborhood. Meanwhile, Nosh informs Sharky that most of the surveillance tapes have disappeared from the police station, leaving both of them wondering if the investigation has been compromised. Nosh is then confronted by Billy Score, who kills him off-screen.
Sharky confronts Victor at his penthouse apartment in the Westin Peachtree Plaza, and vows to bring him to justice. Victor smugly tells Sharky that Dominoe is dead and cannot testify against him, but is stunned to be told by Sharky that she is still alive.
While attempting to find Nosh at his home, two men spring an attack on Sharky, and he is knocked out cold. He awakens on a boat, where he is held captive and tortured by Smiley, who turns out to be working for Victor. Smiley informs him of the killing of Sharky's old narcotics division boss JoJo (who was run over by a car), and reveals that Nosh is dead, as well. He cuts off two of Sharky's fingers while demanding to know where Dominoe can be found. Sharky attacks and shoots Smiley, and he manages to escape. Later, Sharky turns up with Dominoe at a Hotchkins political rally, to the candidate's considerable shock. Hotchkins is arrested and taken into custody, and Victor finds out about it on the evening newscasts.
Billy Score, in an agitated state, shoots and kills Victor. Almost immediately, Sharky and other police officers arrive at Victor's penthouse in an attempt to catch Billy. He is pursued through the upper floors of the Westin, where like a ghostly apparition he appears and disappears, killing Papa and seriously wounding Arch. Billy ultimately is gunned down by Sharky, crashing through a window and plummeting to his death nearly 700 feet below. In the end, Sharky returns to his childhood home, where Dominoe is now living with him.
- Burt Reynolds as Tom Sharky
- Charles Durning as Friscoe
- Vittorio Gassman as Victor D'Anton
- Brian Keith as Papa
- Bernie Casey as Arch
- Rachel Ward as Dominoe Brittain
- Darryl Hickman as Smiley
- Earl Holliman as Donald Hotchkins
- Henry Silva as William "Billy Score" Scorelli
- Richard Libertini as Nosh
- John Fiedler as Barrett
- Hari Rhodes as Highball
- Joseph Mascolo as JoJo
- Carol Locatell as Mabel
- Tony King as Kitten Holmes
- James O'Connell as Twigs
- Suzee Pai as Siakwan
- Aarika Wells as Tiffany
- Val Avery as Manny
- Dar Robinson - uncredited stunt performer
The film was based on a novel by William Diehl, a former journalist and producer, which was published in 1978. It was Diehl's first novel, written when Diehl was 53 and broke. It sold to Delacorte Press for $156,000 on the basis of a six-page outline and 120 pages. "It's a total fantasy come true," said Diehl.
The Washington Post thought the novel "may make a decent movie" but "it tries to be three or four novels at once and manages to be none of them." The book did not become a best seller in hardback but did in paperback.
Reynolds said he was attracted to the film because it was similar to the classic 1944 film noir Laura, his favorite movie. He talked to John Boorman about directing, but Boorman was too busy on Excalibur and suggested Reynolds direct himself.
"I figured it was time to get away from Smokey," Reynolds said. "I'd been doing a lot of comedy in recent years, and people had forgotten about Deliverance." 
Reynolds says the "key" to the cast was getting Brian Keith to play a role. "After that it was easy to get actors."
Fashion model Rachel Ward was cast in the female lead after being spotted in Time magazine as "the face of the 80s". She was cast six days before filming. Reynolds:
That was like starting King Kong' without the gorilla. I kept saying, She'll turn up, she'll turn up.' Then I saw Time magazine... I wanted an actress who could speak Italian and French, and since she was English, I thought she might have the kind of foreign attitude that I was seeking. When she came in my office and I heard her voice, deep like Bacall's, I thought she would be ideal. But Catherine Deneuve once told me that to judge how a beautiful woman will appear on the screen you must look through the camera and see if it has a love affair with her. I picked up a viewfinder and looked at Rachel. I damn near fell over.
Filming took place in Atlanta. "I liked the idea of working in Atlanta, where I've spent a lot of time," said Reynolds. "I made Deliverance, Smokey, The Longest Yard and Gator, my first film as a director, all in Georgia."
At 220 feet, the stunt from Atlanta's Hyatt Regency Hotel (doubling for the Westin Peachtree Plaza) still stands as the highest free-fall stunt ever performed from a building for a commercially released film. The stuntman was Dar Robinson. Despite it being a record-setting fall, only the beginning of the stunt, as he goes through the window, was used in the film. A dummy was used for the outside wide shot of the fall beside the skyscraper.
Diehl, who was 50 when he wrote the novel, saw the movie shot on location in and around his hometown of Atlanta. El Mongol played the part of the limo driver in the film.
Reynolds talked about his directing:
Most directors cast actors on the basis of what they've seen before, and they don't want surprises; they want the actor to give another version of what he's already done. I try to do the opposite. I tell the actors, 'You've done that before, so let's go for something else.' On this picture I did with my actors what I always wanted other directors to do with me, which is to say, 'O.K., I have what I want, now you do what you want.' Sometimes magical things happen that way. I had lots of ideas, but I was open to any ideas the actors had. There really was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie.
"In my picture the good guys win and the bad guys, the dopers, lose," said Reynolds. "That's important to me: I don't like dopers. I get mad as hell when I hear that studios are coddling actors who are always high on cocaine."
The opening credits use the 1979 hit song "Street Life", originally performed by The Crusaders with vocalist Randy Crawford. The recording in the film is a newer version (song length ~4:17) orchestrated by Doc Severinsen, inviting Crawford to reprise her vocal and who composed the original score, as well. This version is a much more powerful and faster-paced version with a full orchestra, and it was the one that Quentin Tarantino included in Jackie Brown (1997) (Crawford is given the only credit on the song title).
As was standard for the time, little of Severinsen's score is included on the album, with many of his contributions being heavily edited for the album tracks and several, like his version of "My Funny Valentine", being omitted altogether.
The Sharky's Machine original motion picture soundtrack contained these tracks:
- "Street Life" - Randy Crawford
- "Dope Bust" - Flora Purim and Buddy De Franco
- "Route 66" - The Manhattan Transfer
- "My Funny Valentine" - Chet Baker
- "High Energy" - Doc Severinsen
- "Love Theme From Sharky's Machine" - Sarah Vaughan
- "8 To 5 I Lose" - Joe Williams
- "My Funny Valentine" - Julie London
- "Sexercise" - Doc Severinsen
- "Let's Keep Dancing" - Peggy Lee
- "Sharky's Theme" - Eddie Harris
- "Before You" - Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams
The film received mostly positive reviews from critics. As of December 2019, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 86% of 22 critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 6.06 out of 10.
Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, writing that "'Sharky’s Machine' contains all of the ingredients of a tough, violent, cynical big-city cop movie, but what makes it intriguing is the way the Burt Reynolds ... plays against those conventions.... The result of his ambition and restraint is a movie much more interesting than most cop thrillers." Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, "Burt Reynolds establishes himself as yet another movie star who is as valuable behind the camera as he is in front of it. Mr. Reynolds's third and best directorial effort ... is an unexpectedly accomplished cop thriller." Variety noted, "Directing himself in 'Sharky's Machine,' Burt Reynolds has combined his own macho personality with what's popularly called mindless violence to come up with a seemingly guaranteed winner. Borrowing from buddy Clint Eastwood, Reynolds has already dubbed this one 'Dirty Harry Goes To Atlanta' and that's about as good a description as any."
Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and lamented its "unfortunate split personality," explaining, "Obviously, Reynolds decided to hedge his bets in the film and play some of it for laughs. That's too bad, because although 'Sharky's Machine' is miles ahead of such recent Reynolds' trash as 'Smokey and the Bandit II' and 'The Cannonball Run,' what Reynolds could use most in his career is a solid dramatic role in which he didn't leer at the audience." Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times called the film "a brutal, fast-moving cop action film about love, corruption and politics in Atlanta ... Before the picture falls into lunatic excess in its last quarter, its best moments happen between Sharky and his team members, especially his wiretap expert played with impeccable timing by Richard Libertini." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "'Sharky's Machine' should become the runaway box-office smash of the season, unless a vast moviegoing public has suddenly sworn off glossy, viciously provocative diversion. Direction his own starring vehicle, that sly boots Burt Reynolds gives the audience a shamelessly lurid but stylish going-over, while putting a clever new wrinkle or two on his own status."
The film was considered a moderate hit on initial release making $35.6 million in North America. 
Sharky's Machine was released in theatres on December 18, 1981, and on DVD on October 20, 1998, by Warner Home Video. Sharky's Machine was released Blu-ray on April 7, 2015, by Warner Home Video.
In popular culture
The film has a major role in the backstory/lore of the television series The Venture Bros. The season one episode "Careers in Science" states that in 1987, on the space station Gargantua-1, a showing of the film was the scene of a massacre of the space station's crew, as an unknown figure in a spacesuit opened the bay doors sucking the entire crew into the void of space, killing them.
In season seven's "Arrears in Science", Jonas Venture is shown putting a Sharky's Machine tape into a VCR to show the movie before the incident mentioned above.
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- Front Page People: It's A Big Hit First Time For Author By Rudy Maxa. The Washington Post 6 Aug 1978: SM4.
- WESTWARD THEY COME, BIG BUCKS FOR BIG BOOKS Rosenfield, Paul. Los Angeles Times 18 Feb 1979: n1.
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- Orion: A Humanistic Production Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times 5 Jan 1979: f13.
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- Filming jumps off to early start Daly, Maggie. Chicago Tribune 3 June 1981: 16.
- Sharky's Machine original soundtrack, film credits
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- Arnold, Gary (December 19, 1981). "Provocative 'Machine'". The Washington Post. C1.
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- Sharky's Machine. Warner Home Video. Burbank, California: Warner Bros. October 20, 1998. ASIN 6305133433.
- "Sharky's Machine". Warner Home Video. Burbank, California: Warner Bros. April 7, 2015. Retrieved December 11, 2016.