Monday, June 7, 2021

Burt Reynolds' Unofficial Remake of a Film Noir Classic

Burt Reynolds as Sharky.
After placing a civilian in harm's way, big city detective Tom Sharky is "demoted" from narcotics to vice. It's intended to be a humdrum assignment, but that changes quickly when Sharky (Burt Reynolds) confiscates a list of seven coded phone numbers from an affluent pimp. One number belongs to a murder victim; Sharky is directed take no action on a second number. That's the one that interests him, of course, and it belongs to a high-class prostitute named Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

Sharky and a fellow vice detective bug Dominoe's apartment and learn she is having an affair with a politician running for state governor. Convinced there is a link to the earlier murder, Sharky conducts 24-hour surveillance of Dominoe's apartment. He also begins to follow her and slowly develops an infatuation with the beautiful call girl. That comes to an end, though, when she answers the doorbell one morning and is shot in the face with a shotgun.

If you don't already recognize the plot to a famous 1940s film noir, then stop reading this review now because spoilers lie ahead.

Although it was based on a 1978 novel by William Diehl, Sharky's Machine borrows its premise largely from Otto Preminger's Laura (1944). In both films, a detective becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who is believed to be murdered--only to turn out to be alive. The key difference is that Dana Andrews' detective in Laura falls for a woman he believes is dead. At least, Sharky's obsession is about a "real" woman.

Rachel Ward as Dominoe.
Sharky's Machine could have been a dark mystery with disturbing overtones. Let's be honest, Dana Andrews' character in Laura wasn't that far removed from James Stewart's over-the-edge protagonist in Hitchcock's Vertigo. The problem with Sharky's Machine is that its star--who also directed--doesn't know how to make anything but a Burt Reynolds movie. With his trademark mustache and sly smile, Burt portrays Sharky as a conventional detective who plays tough with the boys and tough-tender with the ladies. The scene where a coy Sharky flirts with Dominoe and then carries her to bed is painful to watch.

Bernie Casey as Sharky's pal.
Reynolds surrounds himself with a capable supporting cast, but gives most of them little to do. It's sad to see a fine actor like Brian Keith relegated to a bit part (but it's also likely he wasn't in demand at that point in his career). Rachel Ward is gorgeous as Dominoe but struggles in a poorly-written part. She showed off her acting prowess two years later in The Thornbirds miniseries. As Reynolds' vice squad partner, Bernie Casey (Gargoyles) delivers the most believable performance.

To his credit, Reynolds tries to tweak his standard formula by setting the action in Atlanta (instead of NYC or Chicago) and incorporating a jazz soundtrack with songs by Sarah Vaughan, Doc Severinsen, and others. Personally, I didn't care for the score, but I chalk that up solely to personal taste.

Burt Reynolds initially asked John Boorman to direct, but the filmmaker was still working on Excalibur. Based on his earlier success in the crime movie genre (see Point Blank), I am sure Boorman could have delivered a far superior film. It's easy to speculate on what Sharky's Machine might have been. The reality is that Reynolds' variation on Laura is nothing more than a passable time-filler if you've got nothing else to do.


  1. Ward was in her hot-zone back then with Sharky, later (as you say) in The Thorn Birds, and finally Against All Odds. Then she had to go marry Bryan Brown, rat darn it.

    1. She was fun in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, too.

  2. I've never seen many Burt Reynolds movies because sometimes I find him a bit hit and miss. However, it would be interesting to see this film, if only for an homage of sorts to Laura.