Empire (UK)

Charley Varrick


BY HIS OWN admission, Walter Matthau became a star because he had a gambling problem. Specifical­ly, his bookie told him that if he kept losing at the rate he was, he’d get to choose whether he wanted his arms or legs broken. While he tailed off the bets, Matthau got out of the hole by taking any TV or film gig on offer and worked his way up from bit parts and guest shots to authentic movie stardom as Oscar, the slobbier half of The Odd Couple to Jack Lemmon’s prissy Felix. Based on a play by Neil Simon, that runaway 1968 hit led to a career as a middle-aged light-comedy lead. A lot of things were possible in ’70s Hollywood that would be a stretch now, like jowly, growly, wrinkled, slouching Matthau becoming a romcom lead, grouching endearingl­y through

Cactus Flower (with Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn), Pete ’N’ Tillie (with Carol Burnett) and

House Calls (with Glenda Jackson). He stuck with Neil Simon for Plaza Suite, California Suite and The Sunshine Boys, and coached The Bad News Bears in 1976. Everybody’s favourite disreputab­le uncle, Matthau aged disgracefu­lly to become one of the Grumpy Old Men.

But, for a three-film run in 1973 to ’74, Walter Matthau became a tough-guy action star. And killed it.

Fresh off Dirty Harry, which reinvented the cop movie and the American career of Clint Eastwood, director Don Siegel developed an adaptation of a paperback novel called The Looters by John Reese. A heist-goes-wrong thriller, it started out as a vehicle for Donald Sutherland, but Universal had a prestige release slot available and a bigger name was needed.

Matthau came in, initially unsure, and Siegel reimagined the pitch with screenwrit­ers Howard Rodman (who’d written Siegel’s Madigan) and Dean Riesner (of Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry). Played by Sutherland, Charley Varrick might have been a long-haired drop-out at odds with an Establishm­ent represente­d by the Mafia as much as the Law. The more mature Matthau became “the last of the independen­ts”, proprietor of a failing crop-spraying business who turns to bank robbery to make ends meet. Siegel wanted to call the film ‘The Last Of The Independen­ts’, but this was nixed by the suits at Universal, who might have seen it as a dig at them. Instead, it was named after its main character.

Charley is desperate to turn his streak of bad luck around, but Matthau portrays him as cool, calculatin­g and resolute rather than an off-thewall oddball. Played by, say, George C. Scott, you wouldn’t like him, but with Matthau you’re hugely invested in wanting him to get away with it.

The first act of Charley Varrick is up there with Rififi, The League Of Gentlemen or The Wild Bunch as a great heist. After announcing “a Siegel film”, the title appears as a name stitched to the back of a burning flight suit, and we get a sunny, bucolic introducti­on to the folksy small town

of Tres Cruces, New Mexico. Children playing. Friendly citizens opening up businesses. Flags saluted. Outside the bank, a deputy lets a couple park where they shouldn’t, because the older man has his leg in a plaster cast. Matthau, 52 at the time, often played cranky old coots, and Charley is first seen in a grey wig and makeup, indulging in crotchety banter with his supposed daughter — actually his wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) — to distract the cop. When this harmless guy limps into the bank to cash a cheque, it turns out he’s an armed robber and the mood shifts. With two masked men, Charley intimidate­s the bank manager (Woodrow Parfrey) and gets the cash… But a deputy queries a licence plate, and everything goes south.

Nadine shoots a cop in the head and is fatally wounded, but still drives the getaway car like a speed demon as she bleeds out. One of the robbers and a bank guard are killed in the crossfire, but Harman (Andy Robinson, the psycho from Dirty Harry) gets away with the Varricks. Nadine dies but Harman doesn’t, and it’s a measure of how perfect the performanc­es are that Charley never needs to mention that this wouldn’t have been his preference. The robbery, the shoot-out and the getaway epitomise Siegel’s cinema of action, building to an explosive punchline that ends this phase of the film… Before we get to the next hook/surprise.

When Charley opens the cash bags, expecting maybe $20,000, he finds three-quarters of a million and realises that the Tres Cruces smalltown bank is a ‘drop’ for Mafia money skimmed off gambling, drugs and vice in Las Vegas. He knows the cops will eventually give up looking for the robbers, but the Mob — represente­d by smooth tycoon Boyle (John Vernon) and pipesmokin­g, cowboy-hatted sadist Molly (Joe Don Baker), two of ’70s cinema’s best villains — never will. The film becomes an intricate puzzle as Charley — who has to cope with maniacal idiot Harman, as well as cool killer Molly — executes a plan to get away with at least his life and, with luck, some money. Though, in unspoken melancholy, he still has to do this without his wife.

When you watch Charley Varrick the second time, the intricacie­s of Charley’s escape plan make perfect sense, but the audience is trusted to follow them without hand-holding. Even if you’re bewildered, there’s pure pleasure to be had in the funny, edgy, sexy encounters Charley and Molly have with vivid, interestin­g shady characters: Mafia restaurant­eur Honest John (Benson Fong); passport forger Jewell (Sheree North); Boyle’s secretary/girlfriend Sybil (Felicia Farr); lewd old-lady neighbour Mrs Taft (Marjorie Bennett). The leads operate in a moral vacuum, but Siegel always finds space for innocent, appalled children at the edges of the story. This isn’t about crime without consequenc­es.

Having pulled off this caper, Matthau played a cop in The Laughing Policeman and an administra­tor in The Taking Of Pelham

One Two Three — two more tough, flavourful, near-perfect thrillers.

Then it was back to laughs for the rest of a grand career.

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 ?? ?? Bank-robber Charley (Walter Matthau) in his cunning disguise; Norman Fell on the case as Mr Garfinkle; A masked Charley hassles a bank guard; Charley and Harman (Andy Robinson) cash out.
Bank-robber Charley (Walter Matthau) in his cunning disguise; Norman Fell on the case as Mr Garfinkle; A masked Charley hassles a bank guard; Charley and Harman (Andy Robinson) cash out.
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