Sharky's Machine

Sharky's Machine is a 1981 neo-noir[2] drama action thriller film directed by Burt Reynolds, who stars in the title role.[3] It is an adaptation of William Diehl's first novel Sharky's Machine (1978) with a screenplay by Gerald Di Pego.[4] It also stars Vittorio Gassman, Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Bernie Casey, Henry Silva, Darryl Hickman, Richard Libertini, Rachel Ward and Joseph Mascolo.[3]

Sharky's Machine
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBurt Reynolds
Produced byHank Moonjean
Screenplay byGerald Di Pego
Based onSharky's Machine
1978 novel
by William Diehl
Music by
CinematographyWilliam A. Fraker
Edited byWilliam D. Gordean
Dennis Virkler
Orion Pictures
Deliverance Productions
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 18, 1981 (1981-12-18)
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$35,610,100[1]


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 placed under arrest, 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.


Original Novel

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.[5][6]

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."[7] The book did not become a best seller in hard back but did in paper back.[6]



Film rights were bought prior to publication by the newly-formed Orion Pictures in 1978 for $400,000.[8] Burt Reynolds was to star and possibly direct.[9][10]

"Sidney Sheldon sent me the novel, and I found it highly cinematic," said Reynolds.[11]

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.[12]

"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." [11]


Reynolds says the "key" to the cast was getting Brian Keith to play a role. "After that it was easy to get actors."[11]

Fashion model Rachel Ward was cast in the female lead after being spotted in Time magazine as "the face of the 80s".[13] 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.[11]

"She's going to be a big star," said Reynolds. "She just jumps off the screen. She has the kind of sensious appeal that Ava Gardner had."[14]


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."[11]

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.[15]

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.[12]

"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."[11]


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 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 soundtrack album has been re-released after more than 30 years on the Varèse Sarabande label.[16]


The Sharky's Machine original motion picture soundtrack contained these tracks:

  1. "Street Life" - Randy Crawford
  2. "Dope Bust" - Flora Purim and Buddy De Franco
  3. "Route 66" - The Manhattan Transfer
  4. "My Funny Valentine" - Chet Baker
  5. "High Energy" - Doc Severinsen
  6. "Love Theme From Sharky's Machine" - Sarah Vaughan
  7. "8 To 5 I Lose" - Joe Williams
  8. "My Funny Valentine" - Julie London
  9. "Sexercise" - Doc Severinsen
  10. "Let's Keep Dancing" - Peggy Lee
  11. "Sharky's Theme" - Eddie Harris
  12. "Before You" - Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams


Critical reception

The film received mostly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 86% of 21 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.1 out of 10.[17]

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."[18] Janet Maslin wrote, "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."[19]

Box Office

The film was considered a relative box office disappointment on initial release making $15 million.[20]


Sharky's Machine was released in theatres on December 18, 1981, and on DVD on October 20, 1998, by Warner Home Video.[21] Sharky's Machine was released Blu-ray on April 7, 2015, by Warner Home Video.[22]


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.


  1. "Sharky's Machine (1981)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  2. Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  3. "Sharky's Machine". Turner Classic Movies. Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved December 11, 2016.
  4. Diehl, William (1978). Sharky's Machine (1st ed.). New York City: Delacorte Press. ISBN 978-0440075912.
  5. Front Page People: It's A Big Hit First Time For Author By Rudy Maxa. The Washington Post 6 Aug 1978: SM4.
  6. WESTWARD THEY COME, BIG BUCKS FOR BIG BOOKS Rosenfield, Paul. Los Angeles Times 18 Feb 1979: n1.
  7. 'Sharky's Machine' -- Themes in Search of a Plot: Book World SHARKY'S MACHINE. By William Diehl (Delacorte. 374 pp. $8.95) Reviewed by Joseph McLellan. The Washington Post 10 Aug 1978: B7.
  8. Orion: A Humanistic Production Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times 5 Jan 1979: f13.
  9. Book by Robin Cook Brings $1 Million By ALJEAN HARMETZ Special to The New York Times 9 Jan 1979: C9.
  10. FILM CLIPS: Orion Pictures Adds to Its Roster Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times 1 Nov 1978: h13.
  11. BURT REYNOLDS GOES STRAIGHT' IN SHARKY': [FIRST Edition] Bob Thomas Associated Press. Boston Globe 19 Dec 1981: 1.
  12. Farber, Stephen (December 20, 1981). "Burt Reynolds: Getting Behind the Camera". The New York Times. New York City: The New York Times Company. p. D17. Retrieved December 11, 2016.
  13. Reynolds to play tough cop Daly, Maggie. Chicago Tribune 26 Feb 1981: b18.
  14. RACHEL WARD: HER FORTUNE IS HER FATE: RACHEL WARD Mann, Roderick. Los Angeles Times 15 Dec 1981: g1.
  15. Filming jumps off to early start Daly, Maggie. Chicago Tribune 3 June 1981: 16.
  16. Sharky's Machine original soundtrack, film credits
  17. "Sharky's Machine (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  18. Ebert, Roger. "Sharky's Machine," Roger (Jan. 1, 1981).
  19. Maslin, Janet (December 15, 1981). "The Screen: Burt Reynolds Stars in 'Sharky's Machine'". The New York Times. New York City: The New York Times Company. Retrieved December 11, 2016.
  20. Seventh Annual Grosses Gloss Meisel, Myron. Film Comment; New York Vol. 18, Iss. 2, (Mar/Apr 1982): 60-66,80.
  21. Sharky's Machine. Warner Home Video. Burbank, California: Warner Bros. October 20, 1998. ASIN 6305133433.CS1 maint: ASIN uses ISBN (link)
  22. "Sharky's Machine". Warner Home Video. Burbank, California: Warner Bros. April 7, 2015. Retrieved December 11, 2016.
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