Charley Varrick, The Last of the Independents

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.

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Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

[Originally Published on Fogs Movie Reviews Fall of 2013] [Re-Published now in conjunction with the 2018 TCM Film Festival]

I recently spent the weekend with some friends and a guy I know well, and have been friends with for more than thirty five years, had the audacity to suggest that the remake of this film was more entertaining than the original. I instantly dropped my jaw, exclaimed loudly that he had to be kidding and then proceeded to disagree in a condescending manner. I have to apologize for the tone, it was not called for and I would not want my friend to be angry at me because I mocked his preference for the 2009 version. I do want him to know and understand that although I liked the Denzel/Travolta film, it can’t really hold a candle to the original and that vigorous defense of the 1974 classic  begins now as I once more recommend a movie that I want everyone to see.

The nineteen seventies were the last golden age of movie making. There have been plenty of great movies since then, and there have even been periods of time when a film making movement has taken center stage. Yet pound for pound the period of time when the studios were still controlled by film makers and not corporate conglomerates, remains the longest sustained period of film making excellence since the 30s. The mavericks that ran the studios lead by the seat of their pants, and their taste in films. When they succeeded, like Robert Evans did at Paramount, the atmosphere was invigorating. After “Heaven’s Gate” and the fall of United Artists, the movie business changed. Not always in negative ways but it was very different. “The Taking of Pelham 123” is one of those films that represent a gritty view of the world, with cynicism that reflected the time and place and was not simply a joke or a stylistic flourish. It’s not the kind of film that would have appealed to a modern studio as much. Maybe the indie world would be able to put something like this on the screen these days but it would not have had the cache of this version. The remake exists because there is already a story, and a success that the marketers can shoehorn into their philosophy. The remake is a casting gimmick, it worked but only because the groundwork had been laid out by the original.

MatthauThis is a crime film where the crime involves holding hostages for ransom. The conceit is that the location of the kidnapping is a moving target underground. The set up of the movie familiarizes us with a variety of characters, most of whom are working stiffs in the NY Transit System. Walter Matthau, who made his daily bread playing cynical types, is the worn down head of the transit police in charge of one section of the subway system. Lt. Garber, mouths off at his co-workers, dutifully provides a tour to visiting transit dignitaries and generally growls his way through another work day. The re-make casts Denzel as as a dispatcher rather than a cop. OK that might work, except it the remake then  gives him a back story and a plot line that have nothing to do with the main event. The goal is to layer the character and make the plot deeper. In my view it comes off as uncertainty as to how to make the plot as tense as possible. They resort to tricks to build empathy for Garber.  Matthau’s cop version is just doing his job. He is good at it and he struggles with the crisis he is faced with but our rooting interest is in the events not the man. Denzel is given multiple crisis to deal with and his willingness to do the job is undermined by the suspicion around him because of a separate story that is not really the focus of the film.

As a great illustration of the urban grittiness found in the original, take a listen to this terrific main theme that muscles the story onto the screen and tells you this is a film about tough men and dangerous situations, and manages to do so without resorting to theatrics.

I don’t remember the score from the remake, but I do remember the over the top “bad guy” played by John Travolta. Dark glasses, close cropped hair, Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos galore are all trademarks of movie bad guys in the last twenty years. All the gang in the original had fake mustaches but they wore them as a cover not as an attempt to intimidate. Even though there is not any back story or character costuming, the four hijackers in the 1974 film all had distinct personalities and they were easy to remember by their colorful sobriquets.  I am pretty sure this is where Tarantino cribbed the idea for naming his characters in “Reservoir Dogs”.

Robert-Shaw-as-Mr-Blue-600x255The ultimate measure of any story like this is the villain, and while Travolta was scary and played the part as was written, his character is not as interesting or unnerving as Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue. While we ultimately hear a little bit more about his background, the truth is none of it matters because we know from the beginning that he is a ruthless professional. The look in his eye and the demeanor he conveys is all we need to know he is an alpha. Shaw never screams or shouts. Mr. Blue’s cool voice and nearly expressionless face tells every passenger on that train that he is not a man to be f***ed with. The next year after this, Shaw did “Jaws” which was a performance that draws attention to the characters idiosyncrasies.  Except for his intolerance of the psycho Mr. Grey, we see little of his motivation or internal processes. Shaw underplays every scene and the dialogue with Matthau on the radio is deadly earnest. He never compromises. The one time his timetable is adjusted has nothing to do with negotiating but everything to do with the situation, he still is in charge.

The way the hijackers maintain their control of the situation is by following Mr. Blue’s lead. He guns down a hostage in cold blood and he doesn’t accept the improvisation of his reckless ex mafia colleague. When he speaks to the passengers there is no mock sympathy or reassurance. He simply speaks directly and he acts as he has promised to.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick's Dad.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick’s Dad.

The supporting players are a combination of believable types and loathsome stereotypes. Most of the employees of the N.Y. Transit system come off as they are supposed to, harried professionals who view these events from the point of view of a bureaucrat rather than an average citizen. Ben Stiller’s Dad shows up, not cracking wise so much as he is humorously supporting Garber as his partner in the Transit police. Veteran TV character actor Dick O’Neil plays the intolerant train schedule manager who can’t be bothered to worry about dead customers when the trains are getting off schedule. He asks at one point what the customers want for their  lousy 35 cents, to live forever? This is the kind of casual negativity that pushes Garber into one of his few outward displays of frustration.  We get a chance to see the craven actions of political figures as they calculate the costs of paying a ransom. A calculation that has more to do with the next election than saving the lives of the hostages.  We never get to know much about the captives, they are stereotypes; old man, panicked mother, hooker etc. This is not a story of the lives of the victims of this crime or the perpetrators or the cops. The story focuses on the events of the crime.

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The New York subway system seems familiar because we’ve seen it in a hundred movies. Overcrowded, not quite clean, sometimes antiquated and claustrophobic.   The film manages to convey all of that without dwelling on any of it. The darkness surrounding the train car becomes the background for some good tense scenes. One cop even jokes that because of his color he wants everyone to be aware that he is between the SWAT team and the criminals. There is a very morbid sense that everyone in those tunnels is just another rat in a hole and they all have to fend for themselves. While there are nihilistic films out there today, it is hard to see a major studio building a film around that sort of attitude. The characters would have to be sympathetic and the bureaucracy would be the focus of anger rather than the kidnappers. The cops at the surface have many of the same attitudes that we might see fifteen years later in “Die Hard”.  They are ready to shoot first and ask questions later. They are not always competent, witness the car crash that delays delivery of the money, but they don’t play most of this for laughs. The police in authority are not figures to be mocked like Dwayne Robinson, they are also working professionals that are worn from the job but shrug their shoulders and do it anyway. This whole film is very much a blue collar thriller. The bad guys are a team of desperate men not an army of tactically trained experts. The Transit employees are real people in a tough thankless job that have become jaded. The cops are overwhelmed and smart but not brilliant. The only pure comic personae is the Mayor with the flu.

The remake is filled with visual twists and plot developments to astound us. This movie is not filled with fireworks but it manages to hold our attention and be entertaining. The plot scenario might sound farfetched but set in the days of D.B. Cooper and hijacking of planes to Cuba it feels real. The city, the subway the  passengers, the crooks and the cops all come across as real people. This is not a spy adventure or an action film with a hero who overcomes incredible odds. It is an urban thriller that  makes it’s story feel like it could happen and characters that might really exist. The final clue that nails the hijacker that gets away is even more fun now a days when we see so many stories about stupid criminals. Even though the denouncement is played for a laugh, it also feels authentic.

Taking 3

I’m sure most of the readers of this site have probably watched this film a time or two. Fogs gave me a term in a on-line post that I now use regularly. This is a “Black Hole” film. It’s gravitational pull for me is overwhelming, and every time I encounter it I lose another 104 minutes of my life but I gain a 104 minutes of time with story tellers who know what the hell they were doing.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.