Charley Varrick (1973)

Directed by Don Siegel; Written by Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner

A messy film about a messy robbery.

Don Siegel and writers Rodman and Reisner have a piece of advice for any struggling mom-and-pop businesses feeling the financial squeeze of multinational corporations encroaching on their market shares: keep your business afloat by knocking over small town banks. 

A rather unorthodox and aggressive business strategy, it’s nonetheless what Mr. Charley Varrick and his wife choose to pursue as their floundering crop dusting business motivates them to become small time crooks, enlisting the help of a few adrenaline junky no-gooders to take down a few modest, but uncomplicated scores. But when they by mistake rob a bank acting as a drop point for the mob and make off with $760,000, they suddenly have an outsized target on their backs. 

Like the small, unassuming bank propped up by a vast criminal empire, the characters in Charley Varrick are not what they appear to be, and unfortunately the surprises are equally troublesome. Women who start out defiant and self-possessed are just a slap away from being happily bedded, and sometimes it only takes a half-hearted, porn-caliber pick-up line to get them on their backs.

Matthau’s jowls and low grumble of a voice makes for a welcome contrast to the lean, smooth-talking thieves played by contemporary leading men Michael Caine, Steve McQueen, or Clint Eastwood. Also to his credit is the vulnerable domestic motivation behind Varrick’s criminality, but this is callously disregarded as the film goes on and he turns into the cynical crook his background story would have us believe he isn’t. It’s either bad writing, or Siegel and co. are trying to draw a parallel between the disappearance of family businesses and the erosion of family values. I’m pretty certain it’s the former. 

Adding some real fire to all of this is Joe Don Baker as mob enforcer Molly, a pipe-smoking cowboy who only seems content when he’s inflicting pain on others. A real cad whose two-dimensional evil brings some spark to every encounter he has as he tracks down Varrick. Baker’s boyish handsomeness is perfect here, like a Ken doll from hell. 

With questionable characters and story pushed to the side, Siegel’s deft touch for action sequences shine through. From the suspenseful initial bank robbery, and subsequent getaway chase, to a climactic showdown involving a cherry-red car and a cranky crop duster, Siegel knows how to thrill. It’s just a shame everything in between those two highlights is a mess.  

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