Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Film Review: CHARLEY VARRICK (1973, Don Siegel)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 111 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Walter Matthau (CHARADE, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE), Joe Don Baker (WALKING TALL, MITCHELL), John Vernon (SAVAGE STREETS, DIRTY HARRY), Andy Robinson (DIRTY HARRY, HELLRAISER), Sheree North (THE OUTFIT, THE SHOOTIST), Norman Fell (THE GRADUATE, THE KILLERS), Felicia Farr (KOTCH, 3:10 TO YUMA), Craig R. Baxley (also did the stunts and directed ACTION JACKSON and many episodes of THE A-TEAM). Music by Lalo Schifrin (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, DIRTY HARRY, THE MANITOU). Written by Dean Riesner (DIRTY HARRY, PLAY MISTY FOR ME, FATAL BEAUTY) and Howard Rodman (COOGAN'S BLUFF, MADIGAN), and adapted from the novel THE LOOTERS by John Reese.
Tag-line: "When he runs out of dumb luck he always has genius to fall back on!"
Best one-liner: "Sooner or later, you're gonna tell me everything you know. So why not save yourself a great deal of pain, tell me now."

Don Siegel is the man. And CHARLEY VARRICK just might be his amoral, cutthroat masterpiece. THE KILLERS' hitmen protagonists, DIRTY HARRY's mildly fascist sensibilities, and COOGAN'S BLUFF's hateful 'tude toward the Love Generation were just pit stops on the way.

The late 60's and early 70's were chock full of gritty flicks like this; take-no-prisoners crime films populated by brutal, pistol-whippin', lady-slappin' sons-o-bitches: THE OUTFIT (with VARRICK co-stars Sheree North and Joe Don Baker), POINT BLANK, Bava's KIDNAPPED, PRIME CUT, THE MECHANIC, MEAN STREETS, GET CARTER, THE YAKUZA...I could go on.

Walter Matthau, as 'Charley Varrick,' is a gum-chewing, calculating, mercenary thief. His gang kills cops like some people check their watch, and they're willing to risk it all for a measley couple of grand from a local bank in Buttfuck, New Mexico. The only problem is it just happened to be a mob front, and they've ended up with three-quarters of a million dollars.

(But was it truly coincidence? See if you can determine the answer from Charley's unceasingly indifferent gaze.) But he's not a maniac. Far from it. He's perhaps the most rational being on the planet- completely committed to creating a plan that will ensure his survival during the certainly impending shitstorm. Said storm involves a totally dickish, crooked bank exec (John Vernon, who's played some of the best a-holes of all time):

a blundering gang member (played by Andy Robinson, the simperlingly psychotic 'Scorpio Killer' from DIRTY HARRY):

and the equally amoral but far more vicious "Molly" (Joe Don Baker), who is without a doubt the inspiration for Cormac McCarthy's killing machine, "Anton Chigurh":

(A lot here seems like the direct inspiration for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.) In fact, this film so openly flouts Hollywood rules and convention, that, as you watch it, you can literally feel its reverberations on American cinema through the years since. Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Christopher Nolan (THE DARK KNIGHT's clown-masked bank theft of mob money opening pays homage), and many others -some openly, and some not- have dug deep into the many layers of VARRICK and extracted little bits here and there for their own purposes. But it’s such an epic, cynical tour-de-force, that no amount of depths-trolling can deaden its punch-in-the-guts impact (or the fact that the finale astonishingly involves a '67 Chrysler Imperial versus a biplane).

Five stars.

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

This film would make a great half of a Joe Don Baker double bill along with THE OUTFIT. As you so rightly point out, the 1970's was a great decade for gritty crime films and this is certainly one of THE best. As for Don Siegel's best... you may be right. Depending on my mood, I flip-flop between this film and THE KILLERS.

Good call on the film's influence also. I had forgotten about the clown mask reference in THE DARK KNIGHT. Wow. Nice observation. And, obviously, the Coens and Tarantino love this film and Siegel.

You comment about John Vernon made me laugh but it's true! He must've breathed a sigh of relief when William Atherton took over as the go-to a-hole for films in the 1980's.

Sean Gill said...

I too flip-flop on my favorite Siegel on any given day- THE BEGUILED's probably the most artistic, THE KILLERS & DIRTY HARRY the most fun, but VARRICK probably hits the hardest- a lot of different flavors for a director who's not exactly well-known for his versatility.

As for the DARK KNIGHT reference, I think I had just been watching VARRICK a few days beforehand, so when it opened with a clown-masked heist I was thinking it may have been an homage, but then when they reveal that the bank is full of mob money, I knew it had to be.

I wonder if all those typecast a-holes would get together in the 80's for drinks every once in a while (Vernon, Atherton, Ed Lauter, Mark Metcalf, John P. Ryan, et al.), cause that would make me very happy. Also, I wonder if Paul Gleason's hateful "Principal Vernon" in THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a nod to the sorts of roles Vernon excelled at?