Thursday, October 3, 2013

Charley Varrick (1973)


          B-movie director Don Siegel was on a serious hot streak in the ’70s, capping his previously erratic career with a run of wonderfully entertaining dramas and thrillers, notably the four ’70s movies he made with actor Clint Eastwood. Charley Varrick was Siegel’s first movie after he and Eastwood scored with Dirty Harry (1971), and the picture proved the director’s appeal wasn’t predicated solely on his access to the former Man With No Name. A tight little crime thriller with a sense of playful humor (even though it contains plenty of vicious violence), Charley Varrick stars the inimitable Walter Matthau as a pilot-turned-crook who inadvertently steals over $750,000 from the Mob, then tries to wriggle free of the ensuing hit that’s ordered on him. Based on a novel by John Reese, the picture stacks one clever twist upon another, so even though the plot’s a bit overstuffed—the picture runs 111 minutes, and it could have lost a supporting character or two without any diminishment in quality—Charley Varrick moves along at a zippy pace.
          Set in the Southwest, the movie begins when Charley (Matthau) and his accomplices rob a small-town bank. The crime goes badly, resulting in several deaths, so a police manhunt begins. But that’s not the real trouble. It turns out the bank was a dead drop for laundered Mafia money, which means Charley pilfered from the wrong people, and, alas, giving the money back and apologizing won’t satisfy the aggrieved parties. Crooked banker Boyle (John Vernon) enlists brutal but silver-tongued enforcer Molly (Joe Don Baker) to track down and kill the thieves. Since Charley did a stretch in prison and knows his way around the underworld, much of the picture comprises fascinating scenes of Charley planting seeds for his ultimate escape plan while constantly remaining a step ahead of his relentless pursuers. Along the way, Charley expertly handles a hot-tempered accomplice (Andrew Robinson), a duplicitous counterfeiter (Sheree North), an opportunistic secretary (Felicia Farr), and other shifty characters.
         Because Matthau was always so good at making devious characters seem likable, it’s great fun to watch him incarnate a calculating son of a bitch who’s perfectly willing to throw accomplices in the line of fire if that’s what it takes to survive. Plus, because the story establishes that the people chasing Charley are completely reprehensible, our sympathies always lie with the “hero,” even though he’s a liar and thief. Siegel gets a lot of visual mileage out of such dilapidated locations as junkyards and trailer parks, sketching a netherworld of career criminals who hide their illegal enterprises behind borderline legitimate businesses—a crappy photo studio on a second-floor walkup in an apartment building, a crop-dusting concern in the middle of nowhere, and so on. Better still, Siegel hits the perfect everyone’s-expendable tone for this sort of thing, using low angles and quick cuts and the nerve-rattling rhythms of Lalo Schifrin’s score to amplify the danger in every corner of this seedy little universe. The acting is uniformly colorful, with Farr and North, among others, contributing seen-it-all stoicism while Baker and Vernon incarnate gleefully sociopathic attitudes. Flying above it all—sometimes literally, since he pilots a biplane during the thrilling finale—is Matthau, caustic and unimpressed even during the most frightening of circumstances.

Charley Varrick: GROOVY

6 comments:

Tommy Ross said...

Another great review Peter. Next to Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3, this is my favorite Walter Matthau film and it still amazes me to this day how many times I mention it to someone and they say "what, never heard of that one." I also thought Andy Robinson (who played some bit parts in the 70's including The Enforcer) absolutely nailed it as the caustic and unappreciative cohort, he gives a really great performance.

Richard Kirkham said...

You meant Dirty Harry of course.

Tommy Ross said...

Oops, my bad. Yes, looks like that was his first flick. Also I thought he was long gone but he's 71 and kickin'!

Tommy Ross said...

it's all your fault Peter! Now I have to pull it off the shelf and watch it with my Saturday lunch ;-)

Groggy Dundee said...

A really good flick. Matthau is solid though I'm fond of Joe Don Baker too - easily his best performance.

Will Errickson said...

Solid crime thriller, I remember it especially for two lines: "boxing the compass" and "pliers and a blowtorch," the latter Tarantino used in Pulp Fiction.