A Movie A Day #7: Sharky’s Machine (1981, directed by Burt Reynolds)

220px-sharkys_machine_ver3After a drug bust goes wrong, Atlanta police detective Tom Sharky (Burt Reynolds, who also directed) is transferred from narcotics to the vice squad, the least desirable assignment in the Atlanta police department.  Despite all of his honors and commendations, Sharky finds himself reduced to busting hookers with Papa (Brian Keith) and Arch (Bernie Casey).  But then Sharky discovers evidence of a prostitution ring being run by Victor D’Anton (Vittorio Gassman), one that services the wealthiest and most powerful men in Georgia.

Working with Papa, Arch, and a burned-out bugging expert named Nosh (Richard Libertini), Sharky begins a surveillance of Domino (Rachel Ward), one of Victor’s girls.  As the days turns into weeks, Sharky falls in love with Domino, who doesn’t even know that she’s being watched.  Sharky also discovers that Domino is sleeping with Hotckins (Earl Holliman), who is about to be elected governor of Georgia.  At the same time, a heroin-addicted assassin named Billy Score (Henry Silva) is assassinating anyone who could reveal Victor’s crimes.

There are two great sequences in Sharky’s Machine.  One is the opening credits scene, in which a bearded Burt Reynolds walks through the roughest parts of Atlanta while Randy Crawford sings Street Life.  This scene lets everyone know from the start that this is not another Burt Reynolds good ol’ boy comedy.  The other is a cat-and-mouse chase through an Atlanta skyscraper, as Sharky and his partners try to track down Billy Score, who is so doped up on painkillers that he barely flinches whenever he’s shot.  Billy Score is one of the most frightening movie villains of all time, seemingly indestructible and capable of moving like a ghost.

henry-silvaWith the exception of maybe Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine is Burt Reynolds’s darkest movie.  There are moments of humor and appearances by the usual members of the Burt Reynolds stock company, like John Fiedler and Charles Durning.  But overall, this is one dark movie.   Likable characters die.  Sharky cries and loses two fingers when they are graphically chopped off by the bad guys.  A woman’s face is literally blown off.  Even when Sharky starts to talk about his childhood, a sentimental moment the occurred in almost every Burt Reynolds film, Domino tells him that she doesn’t care.

In other words, this ain’t The Cannonball Run.

Burt Reynolds’s first cut of Sharky’s Machine reportedly ran for 140 minutes.  Twenty minutes were cut before it was released into theaters and, as a result, Sharky’s Machine sometimes seems to be rough around the edges.  (One important supporting character is killed off-screen and if you don’t pay close attention to the dialogue, you might never know what happened to him.)  Still, this violent film noir, which Reynolds once called “Dirty Harry in Atlanta,” is one of Burt’s best.


Shattered Politics #33: Detroit 9000 (dir by Arthur Marks)


Pity poor Detroit!

For the past few years, it seems that, whenever someone has wanted to make the argument that America is heading in the wrong direction, Detroit gets mentioned.  The once thriving city and industrial center is now best known for high unemployment, high crime, and a declining population.  After years of civic mismanagement, Detroit went bankrupt.  Fairly or not, many people will always view Detroit as being the city that can’t afford to keep the lights on and where citizens can’t afford to pay their water bill.  It doesn’t matter how many “Detroit is making a comeback!” commercials run during the Super Bowl.

I have to admit that, for someone like me who lives on the other end of the country, Detroit might as well be on another planet.  (And that planet is called Michigan.)  I have no way of knowing what Detroit was like before the media started to bombard me with stories about the city’s decline.  And that’s one reason why I have to feel sorry for the city of Detroit.  Anything positive about Detroit will never be reported but you can rest assured that anything negative will be recorded, reported, and repeated until everyone in the country can recite the details by memory.

If I’ve got Detroit on the mind, it’s because I recently watched a fairly memorable crime film from 1973 that was set and filmed in Detroit.  It was a film that — long before Only Lovers Left Alive — attempted to use the city itself as a metaphor for the political issues and social concerns of the day.  In fact, the city was such an important part of the film that the film itself was even named Detroit 9000.

(Reportedly, the film was originally meant to be set in Chicago but, when the Chicago political establishment objected to the film’s violence, production was relocated to Detroit, where apparently the script’s violence was not a problem.)

Detroit 9000 opens with a fundraiser for Congressman Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challeneger), who is running for governor of Michigan.  A group of masked gunmen break into the hotel and rob the fundraiser.  (While the guests are forced to kneel on the floor while being robbed, a woman stands on stage and sings a gospel song, which just adds to the surreal feel of the scene.)  To investigate the case, the laid-back, casually corrupt Lt. Danny Basset (Alex Rocco) is partnered up with upright Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes).  Because Clayton is the first black man to ever have a real chance to be elected governor and because everyone robbed at the fundraiser was black, Williams believes that there had to be a racial motivation behind the robbery.  Danny, meanwhile, insists that it was just an ordinary robbery.

Detroit 9000 is a favorite film of Quentin Tarantino’s and, watching it, you can see why.  From the soundtrack to the hard-edged dialogue to the morally ambiguous heroes, Detroit 9000 is a masterpiece of 1970s exploitation.  The film ends with a genuinely exciting chase through the streets (and cemeteries) of Detroit that eventually gets so excessively violent that it takes on an oddly operatic beauty of its own.

And, in the underrated style of so many so-called grindhouse and exploitation films, Detroit 9000 has a lot more on its mind than most mainstream film.  Even today, I think you’d have a hard time finding a big-budget, studio production that would be willing to take as honest a view of race relations as Detroit 9000 does.  Beneath all of the exploitation trapping, there lies a film that was actually saying something about the way life was being lived in 1973 and which still has a lot to say about how life is being lived today in 2015.

And, much like Jim Jarmusch in Only Lovers Left Alive, director Arthur Marks finds a strange sort of life in Detroit’s abandoned buildings and dark alleys.  As odd as it may seem, this cynical and violent film will actually make you love Detroit more than a hundred “Detroit is making a comeback!” super bowl commercials ever could.