Charley Varrick – 1973

Director Don Siegel
Screenplay Dean Riesner, Howard A. Rodman based on The Looters by John H. Reese
Starring Walter Matthau, Andrew Robinson, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon, Felicia Farr, Albert Popwell, Jacqueline Scott

Charley Varrick exists during a time when actors took pet projects where their character names replaced the names of the books their stories were based on. The name is often announced several times in the film so you do, indeed understand that this is their film. This time around Matthau gets a chance to be the main star for a change, and even he didn’t like it that much.

I have seen it three times, and am of slightly better than average intelligence 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?

In the standards of 1973, this was considered an intelligent thriller. Contrary to Matthau’s joking, it’s not all that complicated. Charley Varrick, his wife (Scott) and two other professional thieves (Andy Robinson as Harman is one) break into a bank in New Mexico and make what they believe to be a moderate haul. In the process both his wife and one of the other robbers are shot and killed. Charley and Harmon discover that they got a lot more than they expected. The money is a laundering station. Now it’s time to get out of town.

Outside of Walking Tall, Joe Don Baker had a habit of playing characters of low redeeming value in the 1970’s. Here he plays Molly, a killer hired by the mob to find the robbers, get the money, and, you know, kill them a bunch. In a role offered to and rejected by Clint Eastwood, Baker gets to demean women, pushover Siegel standard Popwell while repossessing his car, and treat people like objects. Much of this is done in a way clearly intended to be funny. If it was funny at that time, it certainly isn’t now. Thank God Baker eventually landed the role of James Bond’s American attache or one might never have believed he had an acting skill beyond grunting.

As a man working several levers just ahead of those out to get him, Matthau has his training wheels on for the role. The film amounts to several unexplained plans happening as Baker’s “gorilla” and the crooked and stuffy bank president (another Siegel stalwart Vernon) pursue him.

None of this is as complicated as it was praised for being in the 70’s. Almost all of it is forgettable, outside the car versus airplane showdown in the third act. Even that feels like much of the same type of stunt work we saw in the time period. The sexism stands out now, but it is typical for its time. Women come in three flavors, old biddies, faithful dead wives, or tarts who like to be insulted or struck once before sleeping with a man. It’s not real compelling, it has dated music and there is little doubt that the guy at the top of the credits is going to get away.

There are better Matthau films to watch, but still, he’s never is less than entertaining to watch. Even here, where he clearly has little interest in what is going on.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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