Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick has become a bit of an obscure picture, but it is as quintessentially 70s in its ideals and execution as any other second-tier genre classic of the era. It might not be up there with Dirty Harry but it’s certainly on the same level as something like The Warriors or the original Mad Max.
When first choice Clint Eastwood turned Siegel down, he approached Walter Matthau for the title role and while, like Eastwood, Matthau found nothing immediately appealing in the role took it on anyway. Matthau is an actor who might not have the same chiselled looks as an Eastwood or McQueen but has the same shaggy-dog, world-worn exterior that made Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe make sense in the same decade. Matthau’s performance is half of what makes the film so great. You see the cogs turning behind his eyes. He’s always ahead. We might not know his full motivations until the very end, but just watching him execute his plans rather than understand them is enough to be totally engaging. Siegel regular John Vernon is there for good measure and Joe Don Baker, another actor who seemed to make more sense than ever in the 70s, plays a mafia hitman/cowboy hot on Varrick’s tail. When the three finally share a scene in the final moments you realise the biggest pleasure of Siegel’s movie is just watching these character actors work with this material, as well as finding who, if anyone will walk away unscathed.
Siegel directs the film with brute force. Always an uncomplicated and economical director, he makes every cut count. The opening bank heist and fall out is staged with ticking clock precision. The splashes of violence are appropriately blunt and harsh too. One particular scene featuring Baker interrogating and torturing Andrew Robinson (none other than Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio) is especially tough but not unnecessarily. This is a film about violent men who don’t blink and those who do are chewed out by dogs with bigger teeth. It is a film about professionalism too. Like Siegel, Varrick thinks out every beat. Even his business card proudly boasts “Charley Varrick – the last of the independents”. It’s no mistake that Matthau always looks best when wearing a suit.
As a side note, it’s hard to watch Charley Varrick and not see a lot of Breaking Bad in it. Like Vince Gilligan’s show it is a small crime saga unfolding in Albuquerque, New Mexico where corrupt sunlight acts as substitute for sneaky shadows, where dirty money can be stashed in barrels, small businesses operate as fronts and all you need to forge a new identity is a camera and some fingertip skills. Varrick repeatedly wears the same cream jacket with cream pants combo that Walter White was so fond of too. I’m not sure how intentional the parrellels are but it adds to the film a cool dimension when watching today.
Charley Varrick is as entertaining as you want it to be and as tough and cynical as you’d hope from 70s genre filmmaking. If nothing else it completely lives up to the promise of its first intertitle – “A Siegel Picture”.