Thursday, August 23, 2012

Charley Varrick

Charley Varrick (1973)
Dir. Don Siegel
Written by Dean Reisner and Howard Rodman
Starring Walter Matthau, Andrew Robinson, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon

    CHARLEY VARRICK is one of those nifty little films they had in the 70s which has the trappings of a Hollywood thriller but --at its heart-- has kind of quiet oddness to it which make it feel unique. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about this tale of a small-potatoes criminal who steals money from the wrong big-potatoes criminals, but, like its protagonist, it has an unassuming but deft knack for the details. And, like its protagonist, it benefits greatly from the low-key but undeniable charm of Walter Matthau.

    The titular Charley (Matthau) is the ostensible leader of a small band of bank robbers -- including his wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott, DUEL) and dickish young hood Sullivan (Andrew Robinson, internationally beloved for his iconic performance as Sheriff Braddock from PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS)-- who knock over a podunk country bank in bumfuck nowhere, New Mexico. In the ensuing shootout, Nadine is killed but the boys get away with the money. And it turns out to be a lot of money. $750,000 in 1973 dollars. $3,870,000 in today-dollars. Which, wow, is, uh, more than there probably should be in a podunk farmers’ bank in the middle of nowhere, huh? So now they’ve got a bag full of the Mob’s money, the cops are on their tail, they can’t trust anyone, and there’s a ruthless but folksy Mob enforcer (Joe Don Baker) hunting them. Can’t a guy catch a break?

Matthau takes a little side work as an underwear model.

The coolest thing about the film is Matthau’s Charley Varrick character. He’s a much more interesting, more unusual protagonist than you would usually get in this sort of film.* He’s a former cropduster, and a former stunt pilot (his wife would dance on the wings of his airborne plane, apparently), and unglamorous older guy who favors a mechanic’s jumpsuit and lives in a tiny trailer. He’s not exactly a loser, just a guy who hasn’t ever had much luck, who has spent his life doing shit jobs for shit money. It would be easy to say that this recent move to bankrobbing represents some kind of last-ditch shot at the good life, the American dream which has been denied him, but I think it’s not as simple as that. He treats his new bankrobbing profession like any other job, working small-time banks for small payoffs, keeping off the radar. He’s not looking for a big score to make his dreams come true -- just trying one new hustle in a long life of just barely getting by. When he finds he’s unexpectedly stumbled onto some serious money, his reaction is concern rather than joy. He’s been around long enough to know that there’s no such thing as good luck -- just false hope.

The poster gushes, “when he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back one!” which is manifestly untrue on both counts. But Charley is smarter than people give him credit for. He’s quiet and unassuming, but there’s a vivacity in Matthau’s eyes which tells us he’s keenly aware of the world around him, constantly sizing up the forces leveled against him and looking for an escape route. With his wife dead and his partner a hotheaded lowlife, he’s got no one to discuss his plans with, and so you never know exactly what he’s up to. In some ways, his journey reminds me of Toshiro Mifune in YOJIMBO (or Clint in FISTFULL OF DOLLARS**) where you have this one guy who’s obviously smarter than everyone around him, but maybe not quite smart enough to beat the odds. Like Yojimbo (or Sanjuro) we see Charley setting up his plan, maybe working his way out of this mess or maybe just digging himself deeper. When it seems like he’s fucked himself, we’re never sure if he’s actually working the long con or if he’s just in over his head. The movie generously gives us all the details, though, so when things do come together it’s a pleasant payoff to actions which didn’t exactly make sense at first.
Not exactly James Bond's tuxedo.

Charley’s toothpick-chewing, thoughtful silence also makes him an intriguingly opaque character. His stoic reaction to his wife’s death could be read many different ways. He doesn’t cry about it, just contemplates her silently for a moment, before setting fire to her corpse to hide the evidence. What’s he thinking about? Her badass getaway driver skills (while bleeding out from a bullet wound, notch) and history as an airborne stuntwoman pegs her as a woman who’s no shrinking violet, and perhaps even more impetuous than Varrick himself. Did she, perhaps, push him into this life of crime, which he now has to navigate without her? Did they love each other, or were they more like partners in crime? Refreshingly, there’s no big monologue scene to address these questions -- Charley isn’t much of a talker and he has no one to listen anyway. It’s just there for you to contemplate. The true joy of the movie, really, is trying to figure out exactly what kind of man this Charley Varrick is. And the best part about that job is that neither Matthau nor the film is exactly trying to hide anything. They’re just not big on oversharing. It’s not a mystery, just something there’s not a pat, prepackaged answer to.

Regardless, though, we’re rooting for Charley because he’s a underdog beset by wild dogs. Chief among them is Joe Don Baker, gleefully turning his folksy badass Buford Pusser persona on his head to play a sociopathic killing machine for the mob. Named Molly. He’s still a charming, southern gentlemanly Joe Don Baker type, but now he seems more like Matthew McConaughey in KILLER JOE. He’s a smart, capable smooth operator, but there’s something inhuman and unhinged lurking somewhere below that surface of calculated congeniality. His utter glee at hunting and intimidating a guy way below his pay grade has a disturbing, almost predatory flavor to it***. He’s a great villain, and nicely complemented by oily John Vernon as his mob boss. As the two of them demonstrate the considerable resources available to seriously fucking bad people, things start to look increasingly grim for Charley and you start to really hope he knows what the fuck he’s doing. Even though you know this is a grim 70’s thriller and probably things aren’t gonna work out all that well for him.

This is why every cowboy sings a sad, sad song.

Director Don Siegel made a bunch of classics like the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE SHOOTIST, HELL IS FOR HEROS, COOGAN’s BLUFF, and DIRTY HARRY (just two years before this), but doesn’t seem like the kind of director to leave a lot of his own fingerprints on the work. Instead, he directs with a lot of the attributes of his protagonist here: a quiet, workmanlike competence that wins you over without overwhelming you. He has a knack for putting together highly effective scenes without calling attention to himself. It’s subtle, but he knows when to stage a long, slow take and when to turn on the editing tricks -- it’s resolutely unflashy, but it means when things pick up tempo, you get excited by the action instead of the editing. Imagine that, an action scene where the action itself is exciting enough that they don't have to beat us over the head with a much of editing and camera tricks.

So as a whole, CHARLEY VARRICK is admittedly unflashy, which probably explains it’s relative obscurity. Even for a 70’s crime picture, it’s a little too odd, a little unwilling to milk its simple premise for the big payoffs audiences were probably expecting. Varrick’s old cropdusting business boasts a slogan, painted on the side of his van, which Siegel apparently hoped would be the film’s title: “Charley Varrick: Last of the independents.” Neither the movie nor the main character go quite the way they’re expected to, and both of them probably suffered a bit for it. They’re too unusual for the mainstream, and a the same time not exotic enough for jaded elites looking for a challenge. But for those of us who are game to watch something truly go its own way --unglamorous, uncompromising, but maybe a little more clever than it seems at first wash-- CHARLEY VARRICK will hopefully not be the very last of the independents.

*Actually, Clint Eastwood was originally up for this part, straight off his DIRTY HARRY collaboration with director Don Siegel. He turned it down, though, and it’s just as well -- part of the film’s charm is that Matthau isn’t an alpha-male action hero. He’s much more believable as a schlub who may well be in too deep to claw himself out. With Eastwood, you’re gonna assume he’s eventually going to face down his enemies and blow them away. With Matthau, you can settle for just wanting him to escape with his life.

**But not Bruce in LAST ONE STANDING, who has that awful interior monologue where he’s constantly telling us what he’s trying to do.

***In fact, Marcellus Wallace’s line in PULP FICTION about “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” is cribbed almost directly from this movie.

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