Few filmgoers noticed Charley Varrick when it came out in 1973. After all, The Godfather, that ultimate game-changing gangster film, had been released a year earlier. So who was going to fuss over this nugget about a small-time bank robber fleeing with the mob’s money?
Plus, 1973 happened to be an amazing movie year. The Sting. The Exorcist. American Graffiti. Serpico. Mean Streets. High Plains Drifter. More than a dozen terrific films debuted in one of the deepest eras ever in American film.
So this little gem arrived in theaters that October and disappeared within three weeks, drawing less than $6 million at the box office. It was quickly forgotten.
Now, thanks to Universal Studios rummaging through the attic and releasing the DVD in 2010, Charley Varrick can be enjoyed by new generations of movie fans. This time, we advise you not to miss it. It may not have the breadth of the Top 25 finishers on our list, but it’s a gritty sleeper of a crime story, cleverly cast and sufficiently nasty and bleak.
The story centers on the title character played by Walter Matthau, who strays a long way from his usual grump-with-a-heart-of-gold acting persona. Charley and his crew hold up a bank at a desolate New Mexico crossroads. But things go awry when a sheriff’s deputy gets too curious, and before you know it a pair of cops, the bank guard and two of Charley’s accomplices—including his wife—get gunned down in the ensuing shootout.
Charley and his lone surviving accomplice, Harman (Andrew Robinson), escape with a saddlebag they expect to contain a few thousand bucks. To their amazement, the tiny bank has just coughed up $765,000. Harman is elated. Charley, older and wiser, knows better.
Harman: “We lucked out.”
Charley: “More like crapped out. It’s 10-to-1 this stuff belongs to the Mafia. This is gambling money, skimmed off the top. Whore money. Dope money.”
Harman: “What’s the difference?”
Charley: “The difference is that the Mafia kills, you moron. No trial, no judge. They never stop looking for you until you’re dead. I’d rather have 10 FBI’s looking after me.”
Charley’s instincts are correct. The mob hires an icy, pipe-smoking hitman named Molly (Joe Don Baker). His assignment (delivered in a Mission: Impossible-style tape-recorded message) is to hunt down the thieves, kill them, and bring back the money.
A tense cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Molly tracking the duo. Charley keeps conniving ways to evade the paid killer and Harman keeps undermining those schemes by blowing his cool or climbing into a bottle of whiskey. We won’t give away the double-crosses and triple-crosses that make this movie work except to say that whenever you think you’ve got it figured out . . . well, assume you probably don’t.
Give credit to the film’s producer/director—Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Hell is for Heroes, Escape From Alcatraz), who knew how to craft a dark action story and how to create a morally ambivalent hero you end up rooting for. Siegel typically worked with macho leading men like Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and Lee Marvin. Casting the droll, hangdog Matthau—better known for his comic roles in films like The Odd Couple—in the lead was a risky move. It works because the great actor was smart enough to play the character as a serious, calculating, and subdued man—the anti-Oscar Madison, as it were.
You may recall Andrew Robinson—the actor playing Charley Varrick’s cohort Harman—as the maniacal Scorpio Killer from Dirty Harry. In that classic, he hires a hood to punch his face into hamburger, hoping to make it appear like he’s the victim of police brutality. In this movie, he endures another brutal face mashing. Hey, unlike Matthau, some actors can’t escape typecasting.
HIT: Joe Don Baker is downright scary in his role as a mob hitman—slapping women, pushing over old men in wheelchairs, stalking his prey with a sneer, and a puff of his pipe. It’s his most intimidating role this side of Buford Pusser in Walking Tall.
MISS: The original movie was filmed in Panavision and boasts beautiful New Mexican vistas. Cropping it to fit the TV screen creates too many pan-and-scan moments and occasional claustrophobia.
CASTING CALL: The script was written with Clint Eastwood in mind for the lead, following Eastwood’s collaboration with Siegel in Dirty Harry. Eastwood reportedly turned down the role because he could find no redeeming qualities in the film’s protagonist.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The casting of Matthau in this key role helps tremendously. Though Charley is tough enough to walk away from his wife’s death without showing much emotion, the character is inhabited—maybe even transformed—by Matthau’s wit and sensitivity as an actor. If the role were played by someone else, Charley Varrick would be something else entirely.”—Vincent Canby, New York Times
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Siegel claimed Matthau contributed to the movie’s box office failure by telling everyone that he neither liked it nor comprehended it. One note Matthau sent to the director said, “I have seen it three times, and am of slightly better than average intelligence (120 IQ), but I still don’t quite understand what’s going on. Is there a device we can use to explain to people what they’re seeing?”
We would disagree with Matthau on that one.
GOOF: Because the movie was shot out of sequence, the length of Charley’s sideburns varies from scene to scene.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Not high, although there’s more brutality aimed at women than we’re used to. One bleeds to death after getting shot. Another gets slapped in the face and, somehow, finds that a turn-on to have sex with a stranger.
BODY COUNT: Nine—six by gunshot (including one suicide), one by off-screen beating, one by detonation, and one by getting run over with a car.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Corrupt bank chairman Maynard Boyle is played by Canadian stage actor John Vernon. You may recognize him from his role as San Francisco’s mayor in Dirty Harry or as rebel officer Fletcher in The Outlaw Josey Wales. We’ll almost guarantee you’ll spot him as the bullying Dean Wormer from 1978’s frathouse comedy classic Animal House.
BEST LINE: Maynard Boyle, warning wimpy branch manager Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey) that the mob will suspect him of being an insider in the heist of his own bank: “They’re going to try to make you tell where the money is. They’re going to strip you naked and go to work with a pair of pliers and blow torch.”
The quote was paraphrased 20 years later in Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino, who said he found Charley Varrick to be “inspiring.” Indeed, Tarantino even borrowed the name Maynard for one of Pulp’s subterranean characters—the guy who, along with motorcycle cop Zed, gets promised that same “medieval” pliers-and-blow-torch treatment.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Neither exciting nor inspiring enough to put into your Netflix queue more than once a decade.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The bank secretary that Varrick seduces and beds is played by actress Felicia Farr. She was the longtime, real-life wife of actor Jack Lemmon, who costarred with Matthau in 10 movies. We can’t imagine that Lemmon enjoyed watching that scene.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: No Country for Old Men, the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Motion Picture, which also centers on a guy reluctantly in possession of mob money and trying to stay one step ahead of an intractable killer. You can decide for yourself who’s the more frightening hitman, Javier Bardem or Joe Don Baker. It’s close.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
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George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”