- Charlie Varrick
- Directed by Don Siegel
- October 19, 1973
- Based on the 1968 novel The Looters by John H. Reese
After staging a bank robbery, a man and his partner realize they accidentally stole from the mob.
Charlie Varrick is the type of grim and gritty crime thriller that you could only truly get during the 60s or 70s. They just do not make them like this anymore. These are hard and tough characters. Individuals aren’t necessarily evil but rather this is the world in which they live and the rules by which they function. It’s a job or business to them and nothing more. These are dangerous people but only if they play the rules better than you. There is casual double dealing around every corner in the story.
I am more familiar with Walter Matthau from Dennis the Menace or The Odd Couple or even The Grumpy Old Men films than anything dramatic. I know he has done as much drama as he does has done lighter stuff but seeing him as the weary and hard-edged Charley Varrick was quite a revelation to me. It is an absolutely brilliant performance. His Varrick is not evil but rather simply trying to make ends meet. He doesn’t quite seem to be getting by with whatever he tries and has taken to bank robbery. Unfortunately his plan for easy cash puts him squarely in the focus of the mob. Oops!
Charley Varrick is not handsome or dashing or a thief. He is a pretty average guy to be honest and that’s why this movie largely succeeds. You can put yourself in his position. He is as blue collar as anybody. He is a character you can identify with because he is not framed as some fantasy.
Matthau was no Clint Eastwood in appearance who was offered the part first. He looks like somebody you could meet easily out in public. This is a story about the everyman and without his look as well as his talent it would not have worked.
Andrew Robinson appears in this film as Harman Sullivan who is Charlie’s cohort in the robbery. I have always enjoyed Robinson in whatever movie or TV series I’ve seen him in. He’s just a joy to watch and brings something special to everything. Have you seen his work in DS9? Absolutely brilliant work there and just about everywhere else.
Robinson brings an unlikeable yet understandable quality to Harman. He is impulsive and rash in his youthful energy that is amped up further on committing a robbery. He is living a fantasy and that makes him hard for the levelheaded Varrick to keep under control as they navigate the perilous situation. And as one would expect Harman is the weak link that prevents all from getting away scot-free.
John Vernon is bank president Maynard Boyle who finds himself in serious danger after his seemingly perfect bank to launder money through gets robbed. It is implied in his dialogue that this has happened before and he is worried about time number two. Vernon was the perfect jerk without acting like a jerk authority figure. He is a businessman attracted to the mob money that now finds himself in serious danger.
To clean up this mess he hires once again hitman “Molly” played be Joe Don Baker. Baker was a decent actor, but he took a lot of crappy stuff. I put him on occasion in the same lot as George Kennedy. His hitman is a cowboy but then again that mafia hitman is played by Joe Don Baker. If he had focused more on quality and less one just making a buck I think he would be better remembered. His hitman is more complex than you would think. He’s certainly out to do the job but has a certain ethics or decorum concerning his work as well as a level of charm. For instance when offered a prostitute he refuses by saying “I don’t sleep with whores… at least, not knowingly.” A little harsh but does show he is not some mindless murderer.
The action in Charlie Varrick is fairly light and only really bookends the movie. This is much more of a tense drama where our main character navigates the underworld in an attempt to survive the day. There are no people of honor in his world and they sell him out either for a buck or at the cost of their life. It is brilliantly directed in that things happen rather casually and not because they are explicitly evil people.
The cast is top-notch in their performances and breathe life into the parts. With character actors Norman Fell and William Schallert as Garfinkle and Sheriff Horton respectively along with Walter Matthau, Andrew Robinson, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon, and Sheree North as Jewell Everett this is as great cast in a well helmed film. The movie does not give excessive time to any one actor but rather enough to tell the story and not to tend to an ego.
Don Siegel was a great director that could bring the best from the actors he was in charge of (check out John Wayne’s swansong The Shootist for a great example) and makes this a fantastic gritty crime thriller by upping the tension in situations. Things are brought to the brink of going wrong and then pulled back. You’re expecting something terrible to happen and then it doesn’t because the characters make the smart move.
Charlie Varrick is not a fun crime romp but rather a serious story. It will hold you from start to finish and you’ll find yourself strangely feeling for Charley Varrick. His whole goal was to just get some cash and hurt no one. He picked what he thought would be an easy target and it bit him in the butt.
Charley Varrick is a great crime thriller from the mid-70s. It has a great story and great characters that will not let you go. This is a must see!