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