Charley Varrick (1973)

The Principals: Don Siegel (director), Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon, Andrew Robinson

The Premise: Charley (Matthau), Harmon (Robinson), and Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) lead a group of very quick-witted bankrobbers.  They specialize in small bank and rely on disguises and scripts instead of brute force.    They hit a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico.  This idyllic little town proves to be harder than it looks, though. The heist goes wrong, Nadine is killed, and Harmon and Charley flee to their trailer park to lay low.

Things go from bad to worse.  Charley and Harmon count up their stash, expecting they made off with a few thousand, but realize they have at least a half million.  Charley realizes they’ve just robbed a Mafia drop, and knows they can’t spend a dime of it without drawing The Family down on their heads.

Charley’s right, of course. The shadowy owners of the money, represented by Maynard Boyle (Vernon) have dispatched a brutal killer known as Molly (Baker) to sniff out the thieves. But Molly is the type who might just take out anyone who is suspicious … including Boyle. It no longer a question of who will get to keep the money. It’s simply one of who the hell will get out of this alive.

Is It Good: Did the premise ring any bells for you?  Remind you of a country that’s just no good for older gentlemen? Well, it will if you watch it.  The similarities are striking.  I always thought I was really clever to have noticed them, but a Google image search says that it was all the talk in 2007. It even seems to have ushered in its DVD release, though Charley Varrick still holds onto a murky cult status, forgotten by those who are still saying “Friendo.”

Admittedly, Charley Varrick is no No Country for Old Men.   It’s a Don Siegel film, and thus is a little rough around the edges.  But that’s what I’ve always liked about Siegel. His grubby and hard thrillers just don’t give a damn about slowing down or speeding up. They just bang along and roll with the punches just like their grim heroes.  Nothing is wasted. If the characters keep talking about a toothache, then you can bet dentistry will come up again.   It might be predictable, but Siegel never leaves anything hanging, and I think that’s pretty damn commendable, especially compared to his action successors.  

So no, it won’t be the most thrilling film you’ve seen in your life (the plane-versus-car finale plays as really quaint today), but it’s lean and mean with a memorable man at its center.  Charley is a tightly-wound antihero, calculating, fretful, and appallingly rational.  The way he disposes of a still breathing Nadine is just cold.   The way he uses his memento of her is even colder. He makes Harry Callahan look like a cuddly teddy bear.

Is It Worth A Look: Yes.  It’s not an essential film, but the Coens aren’t the only ones who borrowed from it, so it’s like a little time capsule of references.  Though Charley Varrick may play a little slow and sleepy compared to our modern thrillers (watching this against The Town would be the cinematic illustration of a generation gap), you have to feel nostalgic for its world.   Once upon a time, villains were terrifying just because they were big, crude, and smoked a pipe.  No one added any extra weirdness to them. And  paunchy men like Matthau were A-List action leads, and were attractive enough to throw down on your silk sheets.  Siegel always did have supreme confidence in the sexual charisma of his male leads, which is really unsettling in its bravado.  Maybe it was just the swinging ’70s and people really did just shrug and “box in the compass” together.

Speaking of love, I think this movie might be worth watching purely because it takes a leisurely moment out at the real Mustang Ranch.  Joe Conforte plays himself and I was convinced the older blonde giving Molly the grand tour was the real Sally Conforte. But I can’t find a photo of her circa 1973 to confirm or deny that.   Seeing the real place is intriguingly gross, though.   If Charley Varrick came out today, this location would have been controversial enough to get a discussion on CNN. Someone think of the children and the representation of women! Glamorizing Mustang Ranch? How could they!

Finally, I think Charley Varrick is fun mainly because most of the roles are filled with Siegel regulars. Look, it’s Andrew Robinson!  And there, it’s Albert Popwell.   John Vernon, you’re supposed to be the Mayor of San Fransisco, what are you doing here?     You half expect Coogan to show up to investigate.    It’s like Siegel was building up his own little movie universe where these characters would eventually throw down.   Clint Eastwood is even namedropped in this movie which makes it practically meta.  A sense of a shared world is a neat and unintentional atmosphere to his ouevre.  

Random Anecdotes: Walter Matthau never wanted to play the role, hated the film and Siegel, and constantly badmouthed it. His notes on the film are included in Siegel’s autobiography (thanks again, Smilin’ Jack Ruby) and they’re an intriguing look into what he thought made a good character and movie.   I’ve heard Charley was meant to be played by Eastwood, but can find nothing definitive to back it up, but it would explain how Matthau got stuck in the film at all.

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