I’m not sure whether to classify this as one of my “Movies I Want Everyone to See” or as a “Film Lost in Time”. It certainty fits the former category but for some film fans it may fit the later as well. It stars Walter Matthau, a guy who many modern film fans will not know well, but anyone over 40 is likely to have a dozen Matthau films on at least one of their best of lists. He appeared in in “Charade”, “Fail-Safe” ,”The Fortune Cookie” and most famously “The Odd Couple” in the 1960s. I knew him best however from his 1970s output which includes three gritty thrillers from 1973 and 74, this film plus “The Laughing Policeman” and the great “Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”.
With his hangdog face, laconic voice and middle age physique, Matthau hardly seems to be the template for a movie star. He used all of those characteristics however to play a series of recognizable human beings in circumstances that are a little bit extraordinary. As the title character in this film, he is a small time bank robber who along with his wife, eeks out an existence on the margins of society. The meticulous small town bank robbery he has planned goes off the rails within just a few moments.
Let’s start by looking at the credits and seeing the style of director Don Siegel. On on the heels of his smash Clint Eastwood film, “Dirty Harry”, the director followed his cop picture with a robbers picture. The movie opens slowly without any sense of direction, by showing us idyllic scenes of small town life in what is presumably New Mexico. People are sweeping their yards and sidewalks, kids are riding their bikes, ranchers are traversing their property checking on livestock. Nothing ominous in any of that. Suddenly we see the plaque on the bank and our mood will change immediately. Like the long set up shot in “Dirty Harry” it’s not until one element is revealed that we get any sense of where the story might be going.
Almost immediately, Matthau is on screen, but he is wearing a mustache and a grey wig. The woman driving the car tells a police officer who has come to warn them about parking in a red zone, that her husband is infirm because of an injury. Matthau is then shown to be wearing an anle cast and the disguise seems more effective. He is playing the grumpy old man, twenty years before that became his signature role in the 1990s. As luck would have it, the cop as he is pulling away has a memory of the licence plates of the Lincoln, being on the hot sheet of auto thefts that he came across and so he starts back around to investigate. This is just one of the things that goes bad for the criminals and all hell breaks loose rapidly. Here again, you can see Siegels’s style as the robbery gone wrong will remind you of the robbery gone wrong in the Eastwood picture. Violence breaks out quickly and some die quickly while others linger. The seventies were full of car chases that were improbable, but the quick getaway here is messy and believable for the most part.
If there is one fault in the script, it is the limited reaction of Charley Varrick to what transpires with his wife. Sure he is a professional, and cold calculating behavior might be expected, but the screenplay tries to establish their relationship as being long term and deep, and It is hard to pass something like that off as casually as Varrick seems to. There is a character fault that also we should get out of the way early. Andy Robinson’s character of Harmon, their accomplice in the robbery, is pigheadedly stupid. He barely listens to the wisdom that Charley wants him to follow and he seems to be subtly threatening Charley, a man who has just masterminded a robbery that resulted in the death of three people. It’s as if he is inviting a chance to be double crossed. There is also a little emotional whipsaw going on as Harmon goes from sympathetic exposition devise to belligerent plot development. Robinson famously portrayed the killer in “Dirty Harry” and he mines some of the same facial expressions and desperation in this movie that he used there. In the scene where he is being interrogated by the mafia enforcer, he whines in the same pitiful voice as his Scorpio character in the previous film.
Like most 70s films, this story is not in a hurry. Character gets developed by scenes that have irrelevant details in them. Background characters add a little bit of spice or humor without being essential. There are side trips that seem to lead nowhere but tell us a lot about the characters we are watching. For instance, Joe Don Baker as the hitman/enforcer Molly, stops at a location owned by the mob as he is starting his investigation. It is a brothel, and basically nothing happens there except we see what kind of man he is. He is brusque with the help and specific in his wants. A similar scene takes place when high ranking mob guy John Vernon attempts to meet with the Bank President who is a confederate of the criminal organization. He is delayed by the police and steps over to a nearby park to push a little girl on a swing. Nothing transpires but we get the sense that this criminal is a little different from others.
Since I just mentioned both of them, let’s take a little sidetrack of our own and talk about these great character actors. The late John Vernon was the duplicitous partner to Lee Marvin in “Point Blank”.He went over the edge of the balcony naked and crashed to the ground in that movie, in other words, in his debut film he was a smash. He appeared in a couple of Clint Eastwood films and the Don Siegel film that followed this one, “Black Windmill”. He typically played a sinister antagonist, often an official like a Mayor or his most famous role as Dean Wormer in “Animal House”. His voice was distinctive and his demeanor authoritative but rarely powerful. He sometime came across as the feckless power standing by while wiser or more bold characters acted.
Joe Don Baker is an actor I first encountered in the film “Junior Bonner”. I next remember him for an obscure “B” movie I saw while at school called “Golden Needles”. His big breakout however was in the movie “Walking Tall” an exploitation film that achieved huge financial success and spawned several sequels that he did not appear in. His Texas drawl and pseudo avuncular personality made him a disturbing threat in this film. He comes across as a professional but it is clear that he enjoys the sadism of his vocation. As an actor he has also appeared in three James Bond movies so that automatically puts him on a list of some of my favorites.
There are a bunch of other well known character actors in the film as well. Normal Fell and Sheree North are two performers you would bump into if you turned on the TV just about any time in the 1970s. She played wild card women and he was usually the dull cop not to far from the star of the show. Albert Popwell who is in the first four “Dirty Harry” films in some capacity, is in another side road scene in this film as the guy who’s car gets repossessed by Molly. Willian Schallert is another face that was everywhere on TV over the last fifty years. In this film he is the determined sheriff seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the death of two of his deputies.
Back to our story. The thing that makes this such an effective film is that it does not draw attention to itself or try to explain too much. Except for some exposition spoken by Andy Robinson, we have to figure out what is going on by paying attention to the film. Charley seems to be plotting an escape, but it turns out that there is a hidden agenda in his machinations that only becomes clear as the story unfolds slowly in front of us. The tag like on the poster is that “When he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back on!” We just don’t see that genius until the plot threads start coming together and what seemed a bone-head move earlier suddenly is revealed as part of a large plan that we were not privy to.
After the bank robbery, the closest the film comes to an action scene is the climax where Varrick’s deceptive plan is revealed and we get a car chase, plane crash and some explosions. More than the fireworks however, the best thing to watch is the way little pieces of the plot play out. Varrick knows better than to trust any of the mobsters, and he has to find a way to get away clean. It’s great that he gets to use some old skills in the process. The way most of the tidbits we have been wondering about play out is very satisfying.
This is a film that I saw in theaters as a kid and probably did not appreciate as much as I do now. It was however a film I liked well enough to obtain on my favorite forgotten format.
I clearly stole this image of the two film laser disc collection. Universal had a number of secondary materials they released as double features to justify the cost of your investment. As DVDs came to the market place and the Laserdisc stopped production, I transferred a number of my discs to the DVD format and created my own packaging for the cover and the disc. This is the format I used to view the film for this post.
“Charley Varrick” is a great 70s thriller, high on style and character but low on action. If you like these kinds of movies, and why would you be reading this if you did not?, let me recommend that you either discover or re-discover the genius of Charley Varrick.
Oh, another of my favorite ’70s films! A wonderful write-up for a thoroughly underrated crime thriller, Richard. Even Quentin Tarrantino cribbed the “…a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” line in PULP FICTION from this gem.
John Vernon describing it was as ominous as Ving Rhames twenty years later. I knew you’d appreciate this film. As always, thanks for reading and sharing.