[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
The new Siegel is characteristically clean, fascinatingly and unfussily detailed, beautifully paced—a model of movie craftsmanship and a pointed affront to those slovenly wrecking derbies and indiscriminate bloodbaths that have been passing for contemporary action thrillers the last year or so. Indeed, to anyone who has alternately yawned and fidgeted through shapeless and soulless dreck like Badge 373 and The Stone Killer, wondering what it was doing to general audiences and—through them as an economic factor—what it was doing to the future of the genre, the first quarter-hour of Charley Varrick is deeply exhilarating: not only a superior exercise in suspenseful narration but also an up-to-the-moment demonstration that they still can make ’em the way they used to.
Dawn comes up over a quiet valley in the Southwest. Traffic forms its first browsy patterns in the streets of Tres Cruces, a cozily commercialized garden spot of a smalltown. The bank operates as the keystone of the community’s spurious cultural authentication, done up in period decor, the color scheme a shrewd combination of Western-saloon gaudiness and tasteful-restful, confidential-business-talk tones. A car stops in front in a no-park zone and a cruising cop pulls over to request that the driver move. The driver is a suburban wife, probably once a stunner, now a little tired and … cozy … and saddled with a crotchety old man—husband? uncle? father-in-law?—Kotch, no less!—who sits and grumbles and insists he can damn well go into the bank and damn well cash his own check, by heck; and he has a cast on his ankle, and if he insists on going in himself, well, couldn’t they park there just a moment? The cop accedes and drives away, and Kotch goes in to stick up the bank, with the assistance of two guys in false-faces. The wife/niece/daughter-in-law sits outside keeping watch. Out on the road, one of the cops begins to wonder whether the out-of-state license plate on that improperly parked car wasn’t on a report some time ago. He calls in to the central control point, they start checking, and sure enough— …
And that’s how it moves, with the man who did all those delicious montages in Casablanca and Gentleman Jim going cut-cut, cut-cut, never missing a beat, tossing out weighted lines and letting them extend, pull taut, and curve and circle in on the axis of that bank, that car, that grenade of a scene. The movements are lucidly, unpretentiously observed, and under that cool gaze they become beautiful, nuanced, urgent events. Guns go off in a bank, and Siegel doesn’t get cute, coy, he registers the shock of a disarmed guard dropping his hands and snatching a pistol away from a distracted holdup agent and punching a bullet into his waist, but Siegel doesn’t stage a horrorshow either, not a pornographic kicks-for-the-sake-of-kicks spectacle: the most telling (in both senses of the word) shot in the sequence is that of a cashier’s face as she reacts more and more hysterically while what she sees is seen by us only in dim reflection on the window of her cage.
When the din subsides and the streets clear, some cops and robbers lie dead and two bewildered badmen sit in a trailer miles away wondering how three-quarters of a million dollars came to be resting in such an out-of-the-way bank. It’s Mob money, Charley Varrick figures, the all-American bank having served as a “drop”—and where do you run when the law and the Mob wants your smalltime bankrobber’s ass?
What Charley Varrick—former stunt pilot, presentday cropduster, and putative corpse—does next is fascinating to behold, and the beholding continues to be fascinating in its own right. Charley Varrick, “the last of the independents,” comes on like his offscreen mentor and fellow pro Siegel (who wanders onscreen long enough for a droll back-of-the-head bit as a luckless Ping-Pong player named Murph). It may or may not be significant that Walter Matthau resembles Siegel in appearance: rumpled, crumpled, consummately sly. Certainly Matthau turns in an exemplary Siegel performance, peeling away with the Kotch makeup every Radio City Music Hall mannerism that has won him talkshow stardom and diminished his artistry in recent years; his Charley Varrick hearkens back to the dour sheriff of Lonely Are the Brave and similar inspired supporting roles the rabid moviegoer learned to love him for.
Keeping pace are such non-star supporting players as Andy Robinson (Scorpio in Dirty Harry), John Vernon (the mayor in the same film), and Sheree North (gorgeously past her starlet prime, now metamorphosed into an eminently watchable character actress). Especially worthy of scrutiny are Jacqueline Scott and Joe Don Baker. Scott plays the lady in the car, Varrick’s aerial-stunting wife, who secretly takes a bullet through the car door and hangs on long enough to wheel the getaway vehicle out of range, and who, in an indescribably subtle, essentially wordless scene, makes and ratifies a contract for her husband to desert her. Baker, cast as a Stetsoned, suit-wearing gunman at the Organization’s beck and call, confirms his standing as one of the most dangerously dynamic young character players in the business; the monumental violence of the man, so disturbingly out of directorial control in his Walking Tall Savior-with-a-big-stick role, is here mesmerizingly contained by both director and actor, whose most lethal gesture is to smile.
Moment by moment, Charley Varrick is absolutely fine, from its breathtaking action montages to one of the most effectively sustained takes of the year: a Mafia junior exec (Vernon) sitting on a rail fence and slipping the bureaucratic shaft to bank manager Woodrow Parfrey, while cattle low in the distance and a slant of afternoon sun dies along a verdant slope. And there’s this one scene—Charley Varrick contemplating Felicia Farr’s circular bed—that is just…. Put it this way: Varrick asks her how she sleeps—north to south? east to west?—and she says, “What’d you have in mind?” and he says, “What I had in mind was boxing the compass.” Leaving the theater, I had about four different notions of what he meant, and they all coexisted pretty well. I didn’t know for sure, but coming out of Walter Matthau in a Don Siegel movie, it was lovely.
Direction: Donald Siegel. Screenplay: Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner, after the novel The Looters by John Reese. Cinematography: Michael Butler. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Production: Siegel; executive: Jennings Lang.
The Players: Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Andy Robinson, John Vernon, Jacqueline Scott, Felicia Farr, Sheree North, William Schallert, Norman Fell, Woodrow Parfrey, Benson Fong.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson