For, Friday, April 3, 2015

Burt Reynolds’ cop thriller  “Sharky’s Machine” (1981, R for violence, language, sex) has been available on DVD for years, but never in a widescreen edition.

Back in the day, too many movies were simply transferred to DVD with the same elements that had been used for earlier VHS releases, and while the disc image was generally sharper than tape, the pan-and-scan picture, shifting from side to side, remained annoying.

This was especially true as letterbox and anamorphic widescreen discs gradually became the standard, and especially when widescreen TVs gained wide acceptance.

But some movies have lingered on those cropped DVDs and in 2015 it’s rather astonishing to buy a movie and discover it’s not in its original widescreen format. (I’m talking to you, Fox Cinema Archives!)

In the case of “Sharky’s Machine,” the film has been available exclusively in pan-and-scan for far too long, and now, at last, Warner Home Video is finally bringing it out in a widescreen version on Blu-ray (the release date is next Tuesday, April 7).


         Rachel Ward, Burt Reynolds, 'Sharky's Machine'

Reynolds directed only four theatrical films. His first was “Gator” (1976) a so-so sequel to his successful redneck thriller “White Lightning” (1973). Then came the excellent jet-black comedy “The End.” His last was “Stick” (1985), a troubled production that flopped at the box office.

In between came “Sharky’s Machine,” arguably the best of his directing efforts, a dark cops-’n’-robbers thriller that owes something to the classic film noir “Laura” (1944) by way of “Dirty Harry,” backed by a nifty jazz soundtrack.

The film moves at breakneck speed telling the story of undercover cop Tom Sharky (Reynolds), demoted to the vice squad after his cover is blown during a violent street confrontation.

There, he assembles a team (Brian Keith, Bernie Casey, Richard Libertini) into a “machine” tasked with breaking up a major crime ring that has a police connection. They set up shop in a high-rise apartment building, staking out a high-class hooker (Rachel Ward, very good in her second film as someone who is both streetwise and naive). Watching her night after night, hardened Sharky begins to fall in love with her from afar.


   Vittorio Gassman, left, and Henry Silva, 'Sharky's Machine'

The film is full of plot twists and rich with interesting characters. Keith, as the patriarch of the group, gives a funny characterization of an old-school guy somewhat puzzled by all things new. Casey is especially good as a black cop into Zen. And Libertini is hilarious as a soundman whose family and time behind a desk have softened his worldview.

Charles Durning is fine as the exasperated head of the department and Vittorio Gassman as the chief villain is superbly slimy. Earl Holliman as a corrupt politician gives the right blend of naïveté and selfishness, and Henry Silva is one of the most pathetic, thoroughly nasty villains ever.

“Sharky’s Machine” is a high watermark for Reynolds and fans will be very pleased with this sharp Blu-ray release, and especially with its widescreen presentation.