Charley Varrick: Walter Matthau excels as the titular antihero in Don Siegel’s solid Crime Thriller

Charley Varrick (1973), starring Walter Matthau, Andy Robinson, John Vernon and Joe Don Baker, is a thrilling Crime\gangster drama directed by genre veteran Don Siegel. Siegel made this film immediately after his iconic cop thriller, “Dirty Harry,” and in many ways this film is the definitive Don Siegel film.

Director, Don Siegel, is most famous for launching (or relaunching) superstar and Icon, Clint Eastwood’s American career; Eastwood and Siegel made five films together- of which the 1971 film, “Dirty Harry” is the most popular film in Siegel’s career; a film that helped turn Eastwood into a superstar. Siegel is also considered one of the greatest genre filmmakers ever, perhaps even the greatest. He specialized in making masculine action pictures in typical genres like Crime dramas, Noirs, War films, Westerns etc. His films can be noted for their precision, minimalism, superb narrative construction, propulsive energy and well choreographed action scenes. His protagonists are also maverick individualists, who decides to go their own way, no matter the odds, in a world of rigid rules. SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan, who battles both government bureaucrats and criminals and who’s not above bending the rules to uphold the rights of the victims, maybe the prototypical Siegel hero. But more than Harry Callahan, I think “Charley Varrick” from the eponymous 1973 film – a film that Siegel made immediately after “Dirty Harry” – maybe even more of a definitive Siegel protagonist. Varrick is the most interesting character to feature as the lead of a Siegel film. He, as the hero of this crime drama, is actually a middle-aged man who has no passion for crime. He’s also not a physically or temperamentally a remarkable guy- he very easily disappears in a crowd, and he’s neither very ambitious or aggressive by nature; he is weary, but always calm and composed; he likes to keep his head down and lead a very lowkey life. He was a stunt pilot, who, later, started his own crop-dusting business with his wife, Nadine. They are the “Last of the Independents” (the emblem on their company van) – a title that Siegel originally wanted for this film (maybe because all Siegel heroes can lay claim to that title), but it ended up as the film’s tagline. But once the big corporations started encroaching into their business, Varrick realizes that the crop-dusting business alone cannot financially support them. So, despite his aversion for guns and violence, Varrick is forced by circumstances to become a small-time bank robber; but Varrick is very clear that this bandit business is strictly a side affair to support his main business; Like the man, this business is also very lowkey: he is not looking to rob more than two or three thousand at a time; that way there’s never too much heat on him. Unfortunately, Varrick’s well laid plans are disrupted when he accidentally robs a bank that belongs to the Mafia.

The film opens with this all-important robbery sequence that’s going to turn Varrick’s life upside down. The manner in which the lead up to, and the actual robbery is staged is a masterclass in Don Siegel’s cinematic methods. First, we get a very deceptively cheerful title sequence – the visuals are bright and sunny and Lalo Schifrin’s music is joyful – that’s in total contrast to the rest of the film, but from which we get a very good idea about the geography and the economy of the rural town of Tres Cruces, New Mexico (the film was shot in Nevada by the way). Then, Schifrin’s music slowly starts turning ominous, as we see a heavily disguised Charley Varrick ride up to the front of the bank with Nadine. After bantering with a cop, who first refuses and then later grants permission to the couple to park their car in front of the bank, Varrick enters the bank on a ruse of cashing a check, while Nadine waits in the car- behind the wheel and prepared to make a quick getaway. Inside the bank, Varrick has already planted two of his accomplices, Al Dutcher and Harman Sullivan; and they spring into action on seeing Varrick. They hold hostages while Varrick forces the manager to open the safe. Meanwhile, the cop who bantered with the couple realizes that the couples’ car is similar to the one present at an earlier heist. He immediately notifies the Sherriff, who arrives with some police officers. When the officers approach Nadine, she shoots at them, killing one instantly and seriously wounding the other, but the second officer returns fire, wounding her. The melee outside distracts the robbers, enabling the bank guard to kill Dutcher. Sensing that the bank manager is concealing something, Varrick forces him to reveal two large satchels of cash. Varrick, Harman, and Nadine flee with the cash, but Nadine dies soon thereafter. Charley and Harman swap vehicles and prepare to blow up the getaway car, with Nadine’s body inside. They are stopped by another police officer, but before he can search their van, the explosion goes off and the officer races away to inspect the explosion.

All this happens within the first 15 minutes of the film. From this we get a clear idea that Varrick and his gang are not big time robbers. We also understand that Varrick and Nadine had a happy marriage- they wear identical wedding bands and, after Nadine is dead, Varrick takes Nadine’s wedding ring and put it in his finger before he blows up the car. It also shows how composed and brutally unsentimental Varrick is- despite loving his wife very much, he realizes the graveness of their situation and does not spend much time mourning her death, or hesitate in blowing up her corpse. We also realize that Varrick and the much younger Harman are an odd couple. Harman is jittery , trigger-happy and quite rebellious to Varrick’s authority. Varrick, on the other hand, hate guns and hate using them, and he gets rid of his guns and Harman’s guns at the first opportunity. Varrick prefers to use his brains to get around in the world, and we see this in the scene when Varrick quickly deduces that the money that they have stolen – all 765 thousand dollars of it – belongs to the mob. Since the mob will hunt them till they are dead, Varrick wants to lay low for a long time; he wants to hide the money and spend it only after three or four years, while the hotheaded Harman wants to spend it all now. We get a sense that it’s only a matter of time before these two are at each other’s throats. And Varrick, despite his laid-back nonchalance and his aversion for firearms, can be very forceful, unscrupulous and cunning when required. We see this soon enough when he sets up Harman to be killed by Mob’s sadistic hitman, Molly. Siegel conveys all this in his typical economical, stripped-down style. He doesn’t waste much time for exposition or character building- just slight character gestures, a throwaway line of dialogue and perfect shot selection does the job of plot development and character delineation very efficiently.

The main body of the film is concerned with how Varrick succeeds in outfoxing the mob and manages to escape with his life (and, perhaps, the stolen money as well). Siegel displays a ‘police procedural’ like efficiency in building up the suspense in this portion. Except here Varrick is a criminal, not a cop and he is not solving a crime, but is trying to escape after committing a crime. Usually in such scenarios, the audiences should be rooting against such a protagonist, but first, through very clever character delineation, then by pitting the lead antihero up against criminals who are even more immoral, unscrupulous and ruthless than him, and, finally, by imparting a terrific pace to the proceedings, Siegel makes sure that we are rooting for Varrick at all times during the course of the film. This despite the fact that most of Varrick’s actions seems inscrutable at first, and one has to wait a while, or wait till the film’s climax to make full sense of them. We never understand (when it’s happening) why Varrick switches his and Harman’s dental files, why he makes plans to give back the stolen money to the mob, why he purchases TNT and other explosives, despite his aversion for such firepower etc. but all this makes sense in the climax, when we realize that almost every event since the robbery was taking place based on a ‘screenplay’ orchestrated by Varrick. In that regard, Varrick is stand in for Director Siegel, who’s the one pulling all the strings, and I guess that’s why Siegel considers this film personal enough to call it Don Siegel’s “Charley Varrick.” He closely identifies with the characters actions that’s a meta reference to what he himself is doing; he also identifies with the character’s independent, pioneering spirit. That’s how the screenplay positions Varrick- not as an amoral criminal, but as a steely individual fighting against a combine, a criminal corporation. It’s the typical one man against the world scenario that’s a staple of Siegel films. We find out at the end that Varrick is more intelligent and resourceful than the powerful combine that’s chasing him and trying to destroy him. Of course, this require some suspension of disbelief (which I believe all action\suspense films do require to an extend) because we find Varrick dealing with some situations and characters that’s way out of his control; they are so many variables at play here that Varrick could not have had full command over all of them. But since the audience gets swept up in the flow of the proceedings, and the film is so cleverly crafted, with a lot of the solutions coming in the final reel, it does not bother them.

The film’s title character is played by one of the most unlikeliest Siegel actors, Walter Matthau. This role was originally conceived for Clint Eastwood; this was to be their grand reteaming after the triumph of “Dirty Harry”. But Clint rejected the role saying it has no redeeming qualities, which is rather strange, because Clint made his career by playing blissfully amoral heroes. I have a feeling that Clint rejected the film because he wanted to make a sequel to “Dirty Harry” and Siegel did not. So after Clint rejected, the role went to Matthau; which is also very strange because Matthau is the last actor one imagines as a replacement for Clint. I don’t know how much the role was rewritten to suit Matthau, but Matthau is superb as Varrick. He does not have Clint’s virility or star charisma, and he’s basically known as a comic actor- the laid-back, caustic straight man to Jack Lemmon’s neurotic comic in films like “Fortune Cookie” and “The Odd Couple.” Matthau uses exactly these qualities to pull off this character. Appearing weary and thoughtful every moment; and always chewing gum to calm himself down. Even when he’s doing nothing much on screen, we get a sense that he’s planning something. The fact that he’s very likeable is one of the factors that endears him to the audience and make them root for him, even when we see him do some unscrupulous things. His casting also amps up the film’s suspense quotient- the question always keep haunting the audience whether or not he will survive the threat from the mob?. If it was macho Clint playing the role there would not have been any doubt regarding his survival; and the film would have remained just a good star-vehicle, but casting Matthau made it a much better movie, i suppose. This was one of a series of films Matthau made in the early ’70s, like “Taking of Pelham 123,” that were not comedies. Matthau did not like this film or his role (wonder why he took it up in the first place) and made his displeasure public- much to the chagrin of Don Siegel, who felt that Matthau’s behavior hurt the film’s box office prospects. The film did turn out to be a box office flop, and was quickly forgotten by the public, but there has always been a cult who championed this film (including Quentin Tarantino) through the years.

Playing against Matthau is who’s who of the great supporting actors of the ’70s. First, there is Andy Robinson, who, as the restless hotheaded Harman, is pretty much reprising his “Scorpio” act from “Dirty Harry.” Then there is John Vernon (who was also in “Dirty Harry”), this time playing the role of Boyle, the mob’s frontend man in charge of money laundering. He is quite a likeable guy- a man who plays the piano, charms the ladies and even tries to protect one of his employees, the bank manager, Harold Young (played memorably by Woodrow Parfrey), from the wrath of the mafia. An extended scene featuring Vernon and Parfrey is one of the highlights of the movie: where the former advises the latter to leave town and go on the lam, as his Mafia superiors will suspect that the robbery was an inside job, because it occurred during the brief period when the money was there. Boyle suggests that Young will be tortured if the mob gets their hands on him. A terrified Young would commit suicide later. Boyle’s end is also tragic, double-crossed by Varrick and killed by his own hitman, Molly. Of course, the most memorably colorful and imposing character in the film is Molly, played by Joe Don Baker, arguably in his best screen performance. This butch, macho hitman with a feminine name is a cool, lethal, sadistic killer who has his own code (he does not sleep with whores). He takes great pleasure in beating up and killing men, and beating up and fucking women. The unstoppable, unswerving Molly is an amalgamation of the hitmen, Charlie & Lee, from Siegel’s 1964 version of “The Killers.”; physically, we know Varrick does not stand a chance against him and it’s with his brains that Varrick outfoxes this brawny gorilla (as Varrick calls him). I guess, if Clint had starred in this film, then we would have gotten an epic punch out between these two macho stars The female half of the film is made up by three actresses: Jacqueline Scott as Nadine, who dies within first ten minutes of the film; Sheree North as Jewell Everett, the local photographer who betrays Varrick and Harman to Molly, or rather she’s one of the many pawns used by Varrick as part of his grand escape plan; and finally, Felicia Farr as Sybil Fort, Boyle’s assistant, who get seduced by Varrick. Now this whole seduction portion appears to me to have been taken from the script written for Clint Eastwood without any changes. We know the deal between Clint and his ladies in his films- no one can resist Clint, right?; Clint has no problem seducing multiple women in his films; the audience expects him to, but applying the same theory on poor Matthau feels like some sick joke. And it does fell like an inside joke because Farr is the wife of Matthau’s buddy and frequent co-star, Jack Lemmon. I guess, since there is no Lemmon in the film, the makers must have thought that it was a good idea to show Matthau getting on with Lemmon’s wife. Anyway, this section is the most unconvincing part of the film.

As for Don Siegel, well this film finds him at the height of his powers. Thematically and technically, the film is a perfect distillation of the Siegel aesthetic. And like the best of Siegel films, it is structured in a way so that you can read the film in multiple ways. Just like “Dirty Harry” could be read either as a glorification of a trigger-happy fascist cop, or a strong critique of the criminal justice system that hurts the very same people it exists to protect and one heroic cop who finds a way around it to deliver justice to the people, “Charley Varrick” too has more than one interpretation. Was Varrick really a victim of the circumstances that he ended up being hunted by the mob, or did he actually plan to steal from the mob right from the beginning?. From what point did his ‘screenplay’ begin. Is it only after he found out that the stolen money belongs to the mob or stealing money from the mob was part of the screenplay?. When you watch the film the second and third time, the second interpretation starts feeling more and more likely. The speed at which Varrick concocts his plan and goes about executing it makes one feel that he was planning this for a long time. He was tired of the crop-dusting business and wanted to start his life afresh. That’s the feeling one gets from the last scene when we see him drive away. Maybe getting his wife killed was not part of the plan, and maybe this was a plan that he and his wife had concocted together- to take down a big score one last time and go some other place and start life anew. His wife getting killed was an accident, but rest of everything was exactly what they planned. This is really the beauty of Siegel’s Hemingway-esque filmmaking- by withholding a lot of information and having a lead character who plays it close to his chest, he has created a truly wonderful genre piece that also allows the audience to think.

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