Two years after having made the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Dirty Harry, a seminal police movie that would set both the style and the tone for the genre itself, filmmaker Don Siegel went on to direct Charley Varrick, a neo-noir crime film that, all critical praise aside, undeservedly flopped at the box office in 1973. Based on John H. Reese’s novel The Looters, Charley Varrick had originally been envisioned as a film filled with sex and violence that was supposed to star Donald Sutherland in the titular role.
But the movie’s distributor, Universal Pictures, had set its sights on showing Siegel’s newest picture at New York’s Radio City Music Hall as part of their Easter schedule, which meant that a PG rating was in order, as opposed to the previously agreed upon R one. Therefore, a re-write of the screenplay by Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman was inevitable.
And so was the re-casting of Charley Varrick himself. Instead of the then relatively unknown Sutherland, revered actor Walter Matthau, famous for comedy films such as The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple -- both opposite frequent co-star Jack Lemmon--Hello, Dolly! and Cactus Flower, got the part, presumably as a means of pandering to audiences. Ironically enough, if you asked Siegel, it was none other than Matthau himself who caused the movie’s untimely box office demise—not the actor’s undeniable acting chops, which ended up earning him a BAFTA award for Best Actor, but rather his supposed big mouth.
The director claimed that Matthau publicly admitted to neither liking nor understanding the film which, in Siegel’s mind, directly influenced the audience’s willingness to see it in the first place. As TCM reports, in A Siegel Film: An Autobiography, the director included transcripts from a tape recording the actor had sent him, entailing his thoughts on the screenplay: “I think that there should be a device which explains what is happening. Since I have read it three times, and am of slightly better than average intelligence 120 IQ I still don't quite understand what's going on. Well, I really do understand what's going on, but only because it was explained to me. There's no way to explain to people sitting in the theater what they're seeing; so why don't we explain it? Why don't we have a device?”
Lucky for us, the viewers, no such device has been needed—only our undivided attention, which Charley Varrick has managed to attain on account of it being a masterclass in storytelling. We follow the protagonist as he pulls off a more-or-less successful small-time bank robbery, alongside his wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) and two male partners-in-crime. Unfortunately for our merry band of misfits, not all of them live to tell the tale of the heist gone awry.
As Charley and his remaining posse return to their less-than-profitable crop-dusting business, they discover that the amount of money they had obtained from the small bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico was far more substantial than they could have ever anticipated or hoped for.
And while Charley quickly comes to the understanding that the money in question must belong to the Mafia and should, thus, be first on their to-get-rid-of list, his co-robber Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) does not prove to be the sharpest tool in the shed. With a greedy, uncooperative partner by his side and both the police and the Mafia’s hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker) breathing down his neck, Charley is faced with the formidable task of making it out alive.
And we are faced with the joyous task of watching Siegel’s intelligently written, action-packed crime film slowly unravel, as we eagerly take in all of the details, intricacies and plot points the script places before us. All the while, anticipating their utilization within the grand scheme of things, but never fully guessing the hows and whens. Or, as Howard Rodman’s son and namesake Howard A. Rodman (screenwriter of Savage Grace) stated in a conversation with A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson: “You wanna tell a story that, going forward, seems pretty continuously surprising and then going backwards seems pretty inevitable that it ended up there (…) That's something I think Charley Varrick actually pulls off.” Not only does Charley Varrick pull it off, but the movie also makes such storytelling seem unbelievably seamless and effortless, which is one of the hallmarks of truly fantastic filmmaking. Or, as Josh Olson put it: “It is constructed like a Swiss watch.” Every single piece of information and every nuance of characterization is meticulously spread out across the narrative, so as to poignantly deliver the final punch—like clockwork.
Apart from abiding to the kind of structure that ensures viewers are sucked in immediately and remain equally engaged for the remainder of the movie, what Siegel knows like the back of his hand is when to (metaphorically) stop and smell the roses and when to shift into high gear. Literally. For Charley Varrick’s action sequences involve not only superbly directed high-speed car chases, but also an iconic scene where car and plane collide. And yet, in the midst of all the chaos and commotion, there is more than enough time for the exploration of characters whose unique purpose within the narrative was set in motion the moment Charley and his gang rode away with cash-filled bags.
For Charley’s actions triggered not only law enforcement officers, but also bank president Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) who in turn hired hitman Molly, as well as confronted bank manager Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey), suspected of foul play. And it is precisely the four-minute take centered around the conversation between Boyle and Young that contains one of the movie’s most iconic lines: “They’re gonna strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” Sound familiar? It very well should, for the “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” part was later on freely used by Ving Rhames’ Marcellus Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, an overt testament to Charley Varrick’s influence on the world of film.
Other colorful characters that Siegel throws our way include but are not limited to: the owner of a Chinese restaurant that serves as a front for a gambling den, the bank president’s secretary who falls for Varrick’s stoic charm a mere few minutes after meeting him and readily gives up wanted information, women at the brothel where the sadistic, sexist and racist Molly stays, a local photographer who makes fake passports and is in cahoots with the mob. No one is what they seem to be at first glance and everybody seems to have a hidden agenda, whereby priority is given to one’s own safety and survival—and quite understandably so. For the main driving force behind the protagonist’s every action following the robbery is precisely his survival instinct. He is a man of zero delusions, with a mindset rooted in a whole lot of pragmatism—Charley Varrick is well aware that the only thing that would call off the Mafia would be seeing him in a body bag. Therefore, his every step and every decision are informed by that very fact. And although that might make him seem ruthless or insensitive (even Clint Eastwood turned down the role reportedly because he could not see any redeeming qualities in the protagonist), Walter Matthau’s portrayal makes him anything but.
The scenes in which we do get to witness Charley’s sentimental side are indeed rare, but they manage to hit very close to home, precisely because they are so few and far between. Due to us seeing his humanity on the one hand and feeling his urgency on the other, we are one-hundred percent behind him, invested in his well-being and pursuit of survival.
In comes Molly, the perfect antagonist to our deeply flawed protagonist. The hitman is not only portrayed as completely unrelatable on every level imaginable but he is also the only one without any hidden agenda. Unlike all the other characters that inhabit the world of Charley Varrick, with Molly, what you see is what you get—a ruthless, unsympathetic, sociopathic professional murderer who is not driven by survival, but rather by the thrill of the chase (he might even be considered a predecessor of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem in the Coen brother’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant novel No Country for Old Men). In that respect, Molly is clearly the cat and Charley is the mouse. While Molly is aiming for the kill, Charley can either fight, flee or play dead.
Unbeknownst to Molly, a mouse that is capable of resorting to all three options and smart enough to know which one to fall back on in any given situation may very well end up having its cheese and eating it too. Needless to say, Charley Varrick is one such mouse. And the entire movie is like one long game of chess. But although we see the chess pieces move, we are unable to anticipate what may come to pass next and that alone has us glued to our seats. It is only when the cat ends up falling into the mousetrap it itself had put up that it dawns on us—not only did the mouse win, but the cat was not even aware it was playing chess in the first place.