Burt Reynolds made his share of dogs, which he'd be the first to admit, but in 1981 he released Sharky's Machine, a rock-solid cop noir about dirty money and easy virtue.
John Boorman was originally signed. It had been nine years since Deliverance, the first picture anybody took Reynolds seriously in. But post-production on Excalibur ran long, and Boorman stepped away, telling Reynolds he should direct Sharky himself.
Burt Reynolds in mid-career, the early 1970's to the early 1980's, was Top Ten box office. He leveraged this into directing his first feature, Gator, in 1976. His second picture, The End, came out in 1978. Reynolds had optioned Sharky's Machine when it was published. He knew he had the chops. Now it was time to ante up.
This is a movie that begins with the first frame of the opening credits. Actually, it begins before the opening credits, because there's an eerie musical echo behind the Orion studio logo, then a fade to black, and then the first fade-in. A freeze frame, the color desaturated. An urban skyline, a tall glass-high-rise. The aerial shot tilts and opens up. Solo saxophone, bluesy, a little wistful. The string section, in a low register. Randy Crawford, her voice smoky, comes in slow, with the opening lyrics of 'Street Life:' "I still hang around/Neither lost nor found - " The single long shot keeps going, dipping closer to the ground, the camera in tighter, traveling left to right, picking up detail. Railroad tracks, a guy with a long, purposeful stride. Jump edit, with a simultaneous music cue, blam! the rhythm section kicking in, the horns. Cut to a sudden reverse, looking back up from a low angle, the camera now moving right to left, keeping pace with the guy's motion, his silhouette against the sky, the glass high-rise on the horizon behind him, distant, a world apart from his. And yes, the opening introduces Burt Reynolds.
First off, it's a virtuoso shot, done in the day before CGI. Secondly, it sets up - formally - a repeated visual effect, from high to low, from low to high. You're not at first aware of it. Then you begin to notice. Early on, there's a wonderful tracking shot, inside a stairwell. Sharky's been taken off Narcotics, and reassigned to Vice, below the salt. In fact, Vice is literally in the basement of the building. The camera backs down the stairs, below Sharky and his partner. A couple of flights down, his buddy tells him, This is as far as I go, people don't come back, and Sharky goes on alone, but the camera turns behind him, so it's hanging back, looking over his shoulder.
Sharky's Machine has very conscious echoes of Laura, and Rear Window, but its deeper influence is the legend of Orpheus, themes of descent and ascending. The journey into Hades, the rescue of the beloved, once lost. The whore Dominoe is an innocent, and the tarnished Sharky the one in need of redemption.
Not that the movie's perfect, by any means. There's one near-fatal mistake, when Dominoe finds Sharky carving a rose into the wood trim of a window seat in the old house he's renovating, and Reynolds has one of those patented Aw, shucks moments that just makes you want to vomit. It almost breaks the spell entirely. Another incident, when Sharky confronts Hotchkins, the crooked candidate whose run for governor can be compromised by Dominoe, loses most its effectiveness because it's played in long-shot, and you don't hear what they say to each other.
Let's look at the strengths. Music supervision by Snuff Garrett. The score's orchestrated by Doc Severinsen, who goes uncredited. But we have both Chet Baker and Julie London doing 'My Funny Valentine,' not to mention incidental tracks by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. The cinematography. William Fraker. Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt, Tombstone. The entire cast. Charles Durning. Brian Keith. Bernie Casey. Richard Libertini. Earl Holliman. Vittorio Gassman. Henry Silva. Not to forget Rachel Ward, either.
What characterizes the picture, in a curious way, is restraint. Considering how much of it is over the top, and how repellent the material could easily be, Reynolds gives it a genuinely human dimension. When he does dial up the shock, it's all the more chilling for not seeming forced or calculated so much as necessary and immediate.
Sharky's Machine was Burt Reynolds' high-water mark. He tried again with Stick, and the movie tanked. It was his last major picture as a director. He later admitted he thought he could always come back to it - he directed a number of episodes for his series, Evening Shade - but time had passed him by.
In one of his last interviews, he said he didn't have any regrets left. I think he meant, not that he had none, but that he'd used them all up. He didn't need to spare any over Sharky's Machine. You could take that guy to the bank and get change back.