It’s the loose-censored early 1970s, and screen bandits shootin’ up the American movie landscape are no longer suffering the once-mandated automatic moral retribution. Walter Matthau launched himself into the genre with this excellent Don Siegel on-the-run epic, about an old-fashioned independent bandit who accidentally rips off the mob for a million. It’s great, wicked fun.
Region B Blu-ray
1973 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 111 min. / Charley Varrick the Last of the Independents; Kill Charley Varrick / Street Date January 22, 2018 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £14.99
Starring: Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Andrew Robinson, John Vernon, Felicia Farr, Sheree North, Jacqueline Scott, William Schallert, Norman Fell, Benson Fong, Woodrow Parfrey, Rudy Diaz, Charles Matthau, Tom Tully, Albert Popwell
Cinematography: Michael Butler
Film Editor: Frank Morriss
Original Music: Lalo Schifrin
Written by Dean Riesner, Howard Rodman from the novel The Looters by John Reese
Produced by Jennings Lang, Don Siegel
Directed by Don Siegel
Unlikely star Walter Matthau had in the late ‘sixties established himself in comedies and light dramas, but a few years later he branched out for three excellent action oriented crime films. He’s a harried top transit cop in Joseph Sargent’s terrific The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and an emotionally repressed detective in The Laughing Policeman. But for his debut in straight-out crime pix, Matthau is an old fashioned armed bank robber, who inadvertently runs afoul of the Mafia.
1973’s Charley Varrick is an excellent picture from producer-director Don Siegel. Often typed as an action specialist, Siegel was just off four pictures with Clint Eastwood, two of which were big hits. Siegel brought his best game to Varrick and carefully cast his supporting players, tapping the fine John Vernon and the underused Sheree North and Jacqueline Scott in addition to favorites from his own pictures. Elbowing the scene-stealing Matthau for attention is the great Joe Don Baker, a new star by virtue of Walking Tall, but admired now for his contrasting roles in this picture, Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner and John Flynn’s The Outfit.
The screenplay by frequent Siegel writers Dean Reisner and Howard Rodman walks a fine line between cynical grit and light escapism. Ex- barnstormers and crop dusters Charley Varrick and his wife Nadine (Walter Matthau & Jacqueline Scott) extend their risk-taking into the bandit business. But their robbery of the Western Fidelity Bank of Tres Cruces, New Mexico does not go smoothly: only Charley and his confederate Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) make it out alive. They’re then shocked to discover that they’ve somehow liberated $720,000 from the tiny rural bank. Deducing that it must be Mafia money, Charley has to think fast to come up with a plan that will allow the two of them to walk away with a full skin. But the Mafia immediately puts the redneck hit man Molly (Joe Don Baker) onto the trail of the missing loot. Smart and sadistic, Molly makes few mistakes. His Mafia contact Honest John (Benson Fong) suspects that the robbery has to be an inside job. The only two operatives that knew about the drop are Reno mobster Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) and the bank’s meek manager, Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey), who protests that the robbery was a wild coincidence. Molly is doubly enthusiastic — he will be paid for wiping out the unlucky robbers, and will also have the pleasure of punishing a mob turncoat. “The Mafia doesn’t believe in coincidences.”
The unofficial secondary title used on some of Charley Varrick’s advertising is ‘The Last of the Independents,’ a motto that applies to most of Don Siegel’s cinematic cops and crooks. The ones that get the most attention are the doomed loners — Eli Wallach’s Dancer in The Lineup and Lee Marvin’s hit man in the remake of The Killers. There had been considerable buzz the year before when Steve McQueen’s murdering bandit lived happily ever after in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway; I remember a first-run audience murmuring that they’d definitely seen something new. Thanks to that precedent, the misdeeds of Matthau’s Charley Varrick don’t turn him into another doomed Siegel loser.
That’s a 180 degree about-face from the position of Siegel’s Dirty Harry, which Pauline Kael memorably dissed as ‘fascist.’ This movie is merely amoral. Its genius bandit Charley Varrick outsmarts everybody. Had Charley been the first human to detect Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien pod menace might never have gained a foothold on planet Earth.
Charley Varrick is told with the kind of precision and clarity we like in crime thrillers. The various neatly sketched underworld types leave plenty of room for detail and coloration, such as Sheree North’s avaricious forger and Benson Fong’s local operative. Even the comic-relief neighbor played by Marjorie Bennett is a welcome sight. We enjoy watching Woodrow Parfrey’s nervous bank manager and William Schallert’s no-nonsense sheriff Horton; this is one thriller where the lawman is no dummy, even if he never comes near to solving the crime. Horton smartly finds Varrick’s home in a trailer park, but it’s unclear why he doesn’t immediately stake out Varrick’s business at the little airstrip next to the auto junkyard, and seize his airplane. At least Sheriff Horton is not as worthless as Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell, the give-up-before-he-starts sheriff in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men.
The drama isn’t really about cops versus robbers, but good ‘ol independent American robbers versus what Varrick calls ‘the combine.’ Charley lost his cropdusting concern the same way entire towns were gutted by the Wal-Marts. The film doesn’t say so but the implication is that Charley and Nadine’s decision to rob banks is based on the notion that ‘the combines’ make it impossible to make a living without being somebody’s wage slave. They’re antithetical to personal freedom, which is the one thing adventurous Independents can’t abide. Varrick is a holdover from the pioneer days and won’t be fenced in.
He’s also one smart cookie, and the pleasure of the movie is watching our gum-chewing hero cooly outfox the competition through equal parts cunning and ruthlessness. His sidekick Harman Sullivan has some good traits but Charley is forced to consider him expendable when he refuses to be sensible about the money and the Mafia. Harman is a genuine dummy, but we like him anyway; I think we appreciate Don Siegel rewarding actor Andy Robinson for delivering such a great Zodiac killer in the earlier Dirty Harry.
Charley’s master survival plan makes for great viewing, even when it depends a bit too much on variables he can’t necessarily control. Is it practical for Charley to fly that tiny, slow biplane from New Mexico all the way to Reno and back, and still have sufficient energy to go into combat with a Mafia hit man? It’s an action picture, so we’ll accept that. Just about the only real character misstep is making the paunchy, slack-jowled Charley Varrick into a dashing lady killer — was that development a pitch to entice Matthau to the role? In practical terms, I just don’t believe that the pampered Mafia secretary Sybil Fort (Felicia Farr) would really bed down with a guy who looks like a fertilizer salesman. Charley and Sybil’s one night stand is silly enough that we take it as an inside joke being played on Farr’s real-life husband Jack Lemmon. Despite his Varrick-like sweet and fuzzy secret agent a few years later, Matthau makes a highly unlikely seducer. He’s no James Bond, even if his deadpan ‘boxing the compass’ remark about sex on a round bed always gets a good reaction from audiences.
Although they never meet until a few tense seconds at the climax, Charley has a terrific Mafia nemesis in Molly, a racist creep played to perfection by Joe Don Baker. Always enjoying his work, Molly punches and arm-twists a path to his quarry with a caveman glee not seen since Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. Given a car for the mission, Molly doesn’t mind repossessing it personally — roughing up the car’s owner gives him good practice. The script makes some honest points about the life of this sadistic vermin. He won’t sleep with the whores at a tacky Nevada bordello ranch, but he sees nothing wrong in coercing a sexy mob underling into bed, Sheree North’s Jewell Everett.
One slap and Jewell knows what she has to do; the mob lets her overcharge for forged passports, but the downside is being receptive to tough guy slime balls like Molly. Ms. North earned special attention every time she appeared in a featured role — The Gypsy Moths, Lawman, The Outfit. But good reviews never led to a major revival of her career. Her Jewell Everett is a lot like Anjelica Huston’s racetrack fixer in the much later The Grifters. Each woman maintains an illusion of independence but are really slaves to the Mafia. Is it really better than working for Wal-Mart?
Andy Robinson has a fat part to play, but it’s too bad that he goes through the same paces as he did in Dirty Harry, being beaten to a bloody pulp. Viewers always react well to Jacqueline Scott, whose personality as Nadine really brings the opening bank robbery to life. She’s the perfect daredevil partner for Charley, whether in flying, crime or marriage in general. It’s a shame that Scott’s theatrical career wasn’t broader, as she projects feminine charm and womanly strength in equal measure. And she has a marvelous, warm smile (see above ↑) that says, ‘You’ll die happy when I shoot you between the eyes.’
Other well-known quantities pull their weight admirably: William Schallert, Norman Fell, Benson Fong. John Vernon of Dirty Harry and Animal House is almost a sympathetic mobster, unlike his slimy Mal Reese back in John Boorman’s Point Blank. Vernon has a great scene with Woodrow Parfrey (Stay Hungry), the bank manager convinced that the Mafia is going to torture him with pliers and a blowtorch. The talented Albert Popwell makes a nice bit appearance. He’s the bank robber opposite Clint Eastwood in the instantly-iconic (fair use of that word) “Do you feel lucky, punk?” exchange in Siegel’s Dirty Harry. I notice Walter’s son Charley Matthau’s bit with the Sheriff, because I cut TV spots for the first feature Charley directed, Cannon Group’s 1988 Doin’ Time on Planet Earth.
Charley Varrick is laced with touches of grisly violence, and climaxes with some good car versus biplane stunts that play a reverse on the famous situation in North by Northwest. But the film’s real pleasure is the fun of a tightly constructed and amusing thriller. Matthau was a lucky actor — he played oddball side characters and villains for ten years before becoming the most unexpected leading man in Hollywood. We’re glad he was able to get this much variety into his career.
Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of Charley Varrick is the long-awaited great transfer of this crowd pleasing, intelligent crime thriller. I think the only domestic disc of this title was Universal’s awful, full-frame ‘Studio Selections’ DVD from 2005. The less said about that the better. A reminder — this is a Region B import, and won’t play in Region A- restricted normal domestic Blu-ray players.
This limited edition remaster has a bright, colorful look. Michael Butler’s airy exteriors reflect the sunny ‘Big Sky’ New Mexico locations — I remember ‘Ahs’ in the theater when a two-shot with Matthau and a highway patrolman is interrupted by the fireball of a sudden explosion a mile in the background. When a few interiors (that ugly house trailer) get a bit grainy, the transfer doesn’t try to cover it up. The audio billboards Lalo Schifrin’s funky music score, which dates the film a little. It’s not as hip as his Bullitt, perhaps because Schifrin was asked to keep it light.
Indicator lays on the newly-produced extras, starting with Robert Fischer’s long-form Fiction Factory making-of docu. We also get two audio interviews from the National Film Theater, with Donald Siegel (1973) and Walter Matthau (1988). An insert booklet contains a new essay by Richard Combs and Indicator’s usual roundup of critical notices and contemporary articles (not included for the review).
A snappy trailer and an image gallery are included. Just as those wacky Germans often do, this UK disc also offers the film’s 8mm digest version.
…. actually, Walter Matthau played a bank robber much earlier in his career. In 1959 he starred and directed in Gangster Story, a 65-minute filler feature that’s guaranteed to cure insomnia. It was filmed in Anaheim and stars Matthau’s wife Carol Grace; it shows on TCM every so often. The picture is an early credit for producer Charles H. Maguire (as an assistant director) and filmmaker Radley Metzger (editor).
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Feature-length docu Last of the Independents: Don Siegel and the Making of ‘Charley Varrick’ (Fiction Factory, 2015, 72 mins); The Guardian Lecture with Don Siegel (1973); The Guardian Lecture with Walter Matthau (1988); Super 8 digest version; trailer, image gallery. Limited edition illustrated booklet with a new essay by Richard Combs, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and historic articles on the film.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson