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.
Drug use is prevalent: inhaling opium or crack through a bong, pills, and cocaine. Billy Score, his name a pun, uses PCP and cocaine on his murderous assignments. The drugs give him an almost superhuman focus, a ghost-like ability to move at speed — but the drugs are eating away at his nerves.
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.
She believes she is in a relationship with Hotchkins (a presidential candidate funded by Victor). Victor has built up a criminal organisation over many decades; now he is going legitimate. Dominoe’s connection with Victor’s criminal past means she must be killed, to keep Hotchkins clean.
Victor has a dark secret, which isn’t explored in the film: he is a paedophile. In the past, he’s bought children and groomed them into sex workers. This appears to be a factor in his decision to move to places where there is a plentiful supply of poverty stricken parents, or orphanages, willing to sell their children — and this is how Dominoe came into his life: he raped her when she was 14 years old.
Her story is never examined; when she agrees to testify against him it comes across as a mechanical plot point.
Victor’s death should be a cathartic moment, but it’s a disappointment. As he attempts to flee Atlanta, his murderous associate, Billy Score, shoots him in the back. Billy Score kills him, because Victor has refused to take him along.It would have been more satisfying if Sharky, or Dominoe, had killed him.
With Victor dead, Sharky’s battle with Billy Score becomes the climax of the story. Billy Score flees with a briefcase stuffed with bank notes — a 1970s action movie cliché — leaving the villain the choice of leaving the money and running faster, or taking it along and being slowed down. Realising there is nowhere left to run, Billy Score decides to commit suicide. Sharky shoots first, denying him the satisfaction of taking his own life. Billy Score falls through the glass, and plummets out of the skyscraper.
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 appears to be a mismatch.