Sharky’s Machine (novel, 1978; film 1981) features tough Atlanta cop Sharky and his team, the ‘machine’. They are the modern day equivalents of knights: bound by common decency, duty, and loyalty. Their leader, Sharky, is a blue collar detective, a red blooded male stereotype. Violence punctuates the film: a slow motion close up of a man being shot in the chest, the bloody aftermath of a shotgun killing. Casual racism permeates conversations, although it’s often used to expose institutionalised prejudice. Conversations involving Black characters are reminiscent of characters like Huggy Bear from the TV series Starsky and Hutch, very much a 1970s Black stereotype. When a Policeman uses the word ‘chink’ a Black policeman corrects him with, ‘Oriental’. The dismissive response from the White Policeman is a tut, with ‘Coloureds’ whispered under his breath.
Snooping technology features prominently in the film: electronic bugging devices, cameras with telephoto lenses, telescopes, and tape recorders. Surveillance technology was a novel thing in the 1970s (made famous in films like The Conversation). The act of snooping, being a voyeur, has additional meaning because Sharky’s first name is Tommy. He is literally a peeping tom.
Sharky’s morally dubious peeping is legitimised by the fact that he’s on official police duty. Although, he is exposed when he brings Dominoe to his house; she notices surveillance photographs of her - semi-naked - on the wall.
Dominoe is a glamorised escort, or sex worker, who earns $1,000 a night. Sharky’s brutally jokes that his problem is he doesn’t have $1,000 to buy her. She is demure - the archetypal female trophy - unlike the domineering and manipulative female characters in Film Noir.
By the end of the story, the bad guys are either apprehended or dead, and while Sharky’s team takes a sacrificial hit, Sharky himself comes through unblemished. He gets to walk away with Dominoe: a fairy-tale ending where we assume they live ‘happily ever after’ - although realistically their relationship is a mismatch.
The Arrangement is rich in meaning and clearly has autobiographical significance for the writer. While it is a product of its times - the counterculture of the late 1960s - it manages a certain restraint, boasts exceptional production values and impressive cinematography. The playful and experimental touches feel in keeping with the characters and the general tone, fitting in with the gist of the story rather than becoming overbearing or whacky.
Eddie’s world, like the advertising he excels at, is all a deception. He creates advertising campaigns for Zephyr cigarettes touting them as ‘clean tasting’: a word he knows consumers will subliminally interpret as meaning cancer-free. The Swimmer features another advertising executive in denial about his life.
The Arrangement’s counterculture tone has similarities to The Graduate, with both central characters striving for self-reinvention and rejecting the role society has foisted on them. They desire to be true to who they are - as soon as they are able to work out what that is.
The message of The Arrangement is: look beyond the glossy surface of the American dream - there is another way. And before the end of the film Eddie Anderson will discover what that is, but he will go through painful soul-searching getting there. The reliance on flashbacks to tell the story and the didactic ‘masterwork’ feel has echoes of Citizen Kane.
In both stories a supremely successful American icon ruminates on the meaning of his life. The Arrangement is a celebration of life’s possibilities and finding genuine love. It’s a warning about social conformity, stale relationships, materialism, and living without feeling alive.