The recent passing of Burt Reynolds has brought a lot of nostalgia but only for a glimmer of what he could do (i.e. The Smokey And The Bandit side of Burt).  It’s easy to forget there was a time where Burt Reynolds was the top box office attraction in this country. Several years running, in fact. If he had picked his properties better, he’d be taken as seriously as Clint Eastwood is today. If you want a glimmer of what could have been, just take a look at Sharkey’s Machine.

Reynolds both directs and stars in this adaptation of a William Diehl novel. He plays Sharkey, a cop who is demoted from detective down to vice squad when an undercover drug bust goes spectacularly wrong on the streets of Atlanta. While investigating the murder of a prostitute and her well-connected client, he discovers that another prostitute – a lovely English-accented lass named Dominoe (Rachel Ward) – is involved with the city’s leading mayoral candidate (Earl Holliman). As he investigates, he uncovers a mystery that also involves the city’s biggest pimp (sleazily portrayed by Vittorio Gassman) and an insane, coked-up enforcer (terrifyingly portrayed by Henry Silva).

Reynolds jokingly referred to this project as ‘Dirty Harry Goes To Atlanta’ but there’s much more to Sharky’s Machine than that. There is plenty of action – the film is bookended by jolting, bloody shootout sequences – but the tone is very adult and uncompromisingly gritty for a major studio film.

This was Reynolds’ third feature film as a director and his best work in the director’s chair. Sometimes he gets a bit carried away with melodramatic excess (mainly in the romantic moments, a recurring weakness for Reynolds) but he also shows a flair for noir-ish visuals and makes great use of a moody jazz score that gives the film its own personality.  The moody photography was handled by the great William Fraker and the similarly atmospheric score was handled by, believe it or not, the same guys who worked with Reynolds on his Smokey And The Bandit films, Al Capps and Snuff Garrett.

As an actor, Reynolds takes chances with his screen persona, often in the scenes he shares with Ward. There’s a great moment where he and Ward argue about the morality of their roles – she as the prostitute, he as the cop voyeur – that is an electrifyingly edgy moment and one that allows both to genuinely flawed and human.  The two share a potent chemistry and it really bolsters their performances.

As director, Reynolds pays a lot of attention to character. This works because Reynolds is smart enough to cast tons of great character actors, something he often did in his films whether or not he was in the director’s chair. His vice squad partners include Brian Keith, Bernie Casey, Charles Durning and Richard Libertini.  They play a big role in enriching the film’s dramatic texture because Reynolds – and also to allow these actors to share the screen on equal terms.

You can really see this in the midsection of the film, which consists of Sharky and his vice squad allies staking out Dominoe’s apartment. They spend a lot of time bullshitting with each other as a result and, in the process, reveal a lot about themselves. Casey in particular gets the best moment, a stunning monologue where his character reveals what it felt like the first time someone pulled a gun on him in the line of duty.

Sharky’s Machine has a few small but visible seams –  most notably, the coda is a bit rushed – but the majority of it works beautifully and the results are well worth it for fans of Reynolds. It is both energizing and saddening because it reveals the great amount of talent Reynolds had – and it will make you wistful for what might have been.

Blu-Ray Notes: after years of cropped, drab-looking VHS and DVD releases, Warner Archive did Burt fans a favor and put out a fresh HD transfer of this title on blu-ray with a 5.1 Stereo remix.  The results look and sound great.