Charley Varrick Review
Adapted from a novel entitled The Looters by John Reese, Charley Varrick became director Don Siegel’s next film two years after the iconic Dirty Harry. Walter Matthau plays the titular character, a former daredevil stunt pilot turned crop sprayer who is, according to the slogan emblazoned across his overalls, “The Last of the Independents”. The problem is he’s gradually being squeezed out of business by the bigger outfits. What’s needed it seems is a radical change in direction, specifically Varrick plans to rob the small-town Western Fidelity bank in New Mexico with his loyal wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) serving as getaway driver. Just to add some extra muscle, he enlists help from a couple of dubious acquaintances, Harman Sullivan (Andrew Robinson) and Al Dutcher (an uncredited Fred Scheiwiller).
Varrick plans only to steal a modest amount and, conveniently, is a master of disguise to boot. They think that the hold-up will be a doddle but, as we find out in a taut opening sequence, it all goes disastrously wrong. Little time is wasted as both he and Harman flee with the loot whilst trying to evade capture, Siegel making effective use of some rugged location work across Nevada and creatively framing the action. This is further complemented by a typically dynamic score by Lalo Schifrin that bursts to life at every opportune moment.
It’s only later that the pair realise they have stolen considerably more than expected – a whopping $750,000. Varrick observes that “something smells bad”, knowing that this is far more cash than such a minor branch should have been holding. At this point the terrible realisation sets in, they have unwittingly snatched a fortune in laundered mafia money. The ageing crook is no chump, knowing full well they will be relentlessly hunted and ultimately killed. He would much rather just return the cash - if only matters were that simple. Varrick is also aware that his wide-eyed greedy sidekick has other ideas and will inevitably become a liability along the way.
Meanwhile corrupt Western Fidelity President Boyle (a steely eyed John Vernon), who is in cahoots with the mob, knows that he must recover their loss or face terrible consequences. It’s time to call on the services of Molly, a burly pipe smoking hitman who sports both a serious hat and permanent leer (menacingly brought to life by Joe Don Baker). He’s the sort of goon that you really wouldn’t want to cross and will certainly stop at nothing to hunt down the thieves.
Charley Varrick is blessed with a wonderful cast notably Matthau, who provides a terrific, hard-edged performance that would later win him a well-deserved BAFTA. He was of course better known as a gifted comic actor, often sparring on screen opposite best buddy Jack Lemmon, but could ably play more dramatic roles too if required, as demonstrated in a couple of my other favourites: The Laughing Policeman and The Taking of Pelham 123. Varrick is a well-drawn character who must rely on cunning rather than brawn to get out of a grave situation, drawing upon skills acquired in his previous profession. Matthau’s co-star Robinson also impresses as the hapless Harman - a very different part to the psychotic killer Scorpio he played so memorably in Dirty Harry.
This is a film populated with oddballs, where nobody can be trusted, least of all a slippery fellow ironically named Honest John (Benson Fong). There’s also a great turn from Shree North as tough talking Jewell Everett, a duplicitous counterfeiter entrusted to assist with an escape plan. In lesser hands this could have been just another heist movie, but under Siegel’s efficient direction working from an unconventional script by Howard Rodman, this is really something quite special with a highly satisfying finale that still holds up magnificently even after 45 years.
The Powerhouse Films release of Charley Varrick, as part of their Indicator series, is a UK premiere on Blu-ray and limited to 3,000 units. Powerhouse has recently ceased dual-format editions, so all future releases will be BD only, though will still include a glossy booklet under the Indicator range.
The onscreen credits of Charley Varrick misleadingly state “filmed in Panavision”, suggesting an anamorphic 2.35:1 image. The spotless 1080p transfer is in fact presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There is a strong level of detail in the image, showing off extensive location work to great effect. Rocks, trees and other foliage in the background look noticeably sharper than before compared to earlier DVD editions. Fine patterns in garments are also faithfully reproduced. Colours are suitably vibrant – check out that garish yellow Lincoln that Varrick drives as his getaway vehicle which is hardly inconspicuous.
The original mono soundtrack is preserved, which predates Dolby and obviously can’t hold a candle to modern mixes. It does the job adequately though, with clear dialogue throughout and no apparent audio issues. There is also an option for English subtitles.
Powerhouse Films once again pull out all the stops to provide a fabulous selection of bonus material.
Last Of The Independents: Don Siegel and The Making Of Charley Varrick (72 mins) - This excellent feature length documentary was shot in LA during 2014 and directed by Robert Fischer for his popular Fiction Factory series. It features some informative interviews with Kristoffer Tabori (son of Don Siegel), actors Andy Robinson and Jacqueline Scott, stunt driver and actor Craig R. Baxley, composer Lalo Schifrin, and Howard A. Rodman, whose father co-wrote the screenplay.
Tabori, who is also the son of 1950s Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, enthusiastically shares some anecdotes about the film and his father’s career including – can you believe - Siegel originally wanting to cast Rip Torn as Dirty Harry. In Tabori’s opinion, Sheree North gives the best performance in Charley Varrick, in a small but effective role. Writer Rodman initially had doubts about the casting of Matthau, considering him more of a comedic actor but was later knocked out by performance. Apparently Donald Sutherland was first choice for the part. Tellingly we learn that Matthau had a sizeable gambling habit and to help pay off debts would take every job offered to him.
Robinson describes working with Siegel as a joy and explains that he was first introduced to the director by Tabori while working in New York theatre. This lead to him being cast as the killer Scorpio in Siegel’s classic Dirty Harry (1971), with the director impressed enough to cast him again two years later in Charley Varrick. Scott, a prolific TV actress, has fond memories of working with Matthau and shares some stories. I don't recall seeing her in many other films at the cinema, though she was in one of my favourites as a kid - Spielberg's Duel (technically a TV movie though released at the cinema in the UK).
Argentinian composer Schifrin is probably best known for his famous theme for Mission Impossible but, as discussed here, also had a long association with Siegel and Clint Eastwood starting with Coogan’s Bluff (1968). Veteran stuntman Baxley, whose father Paul worked as second-unit director on the film, sheds some light on filming the thrilling heist sequence and discusses some sequences that didn’t quite go according to plan. It's a shame they couldn't get Joe Don Baker for an interview too, but you can't have it all. Fischer’s documentary also touches upon the films’ unfortunate failure at the US box Office upon its initial release, with this blamed squarely on shoddy marketing by Universal. This was despite glowing reviews from critics at the time. Matthau would later scoop a BAFTA and the film is now generally regarded as a classic.
The John Player Lecture with Don Siegel (1973, 75 mins) - An archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Tony Sloman at London’s National Film Theatre.
The Guardian Lecture with Walter Matthau (1988, 89 mins) - An archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Tony Sloman at London's National Film Theatre.
Super 8 version (18 mins) - The original 'Universal Eight' cut-down home cinema presentation. As you might expect, the picture quality here is not so hot and makes you appreciate advances in technology.
Original theatrical trailer - As ever some of these vintage trailers give far too much away.
Josh Olson and Howard Rodman trailer commentary (2013, 6 mins) - A short critical appreciation.
Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet (not available for review) - This includes a new essay by author and critic Richard Combs, Don Siegel on Charley Varrick, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
Charley Varrick is released on Blu-ray by Powerhouse Films on 22nd January 2018.