Walter Matthau in 1973's "Charley Varrick."

Charley Varrick 
June 13, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Don Siegel

 

STARRING

Walter Matthau
Andrew Robinson
Joe Don Baker
John Vernon
Felicia Farr

RATED

PG

RELEASED IN

1973

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 51 Mins.

O

ne would think a bank robber would be psyched to find out their latest job has reaped way more money than they’d anticipated. But in Charley Varrick (1973), Don Siegel’s expertly constructed thriller, the $751,118 the title character (Walter Matthau) and his small posse of thieves collect from a tiny bank in rural New Mexico is a cause for alarm. Varrick, a former stunt pilot who in recent years has disappointedly

turned to crop-dusting for a living, is no dope, and recognizes immediately that it’s more than probable this is actually Mafia money. (He posits the bank is involved in some kind of money-laundering operation.) He advises Harman (Andy Robinson), the only one of his three accomplices not killed in this particular heist (one of them, tragically, was Varrick’s wife Nadine, who’s oddly never really mourned), that the only way to ward off both Mafia-related vengeance and the shoot-to-kill-promising cops is postponing spending the money for at least a few years and trying as best they can to avoid being seen. 

 

Those aims will unfortunately go unmet in Charley Varrick. Though the old-age makeup with which Varrick disguises himself during the robbery is surprisingly good, the cops deduce his responsibility pretty quick. And the wrathful bank president, Boyle (John Vernon), whose criminal ties are made immediately obvious to the viewer, hires a merciless hitman with a surly demon’s grin (Joe Don Baker) to get back the stolen money at whatever cost. 
   

Charley Varrick has been adapted from John H. Reese’s The Looters (1968) — a book I haven’t read — by Dean Riesner and Howard A. Rodman, and one of its many wonders is how it moves to and from the several characters involved in this cat-and-mouse chase without losing any of its high-stress momentum. Varrick’s impressive on-the-fly outsmarting gives it extra jolts of energy. It’s a pretty perfectly paced movie, with every stab at suspense working like it’s supposed to. Siegel’s no-nonsense direction, which moves a handful of times into a slightly grander place because there are plane rides to be had and explosions to be detonated, gives it the texture of a cheap genre movie so efficiently engineered it ought to be looked at as an archetype for this kind of done-many-times-before movie. The action is extra adrenalized by Lalo Schifrin’s insistent, harrumphing score. 
 

Matthau doesn’t put on the drily funny acting style for which most people know him best here. The joy in his mostly playing-it-straight performance as Varrick — whom he gives a midwestern accent that makes you instinctively think he’s harmless rather than deadly-smart — is his steady smoothness and knack for never losing his cool, even though he’s someone who believes “there’s no such thing as worrying too much — not when the fuzz and the Mafia are after you.” The biggest treasure of Charley Varrick, though, is Baker, who oscillates so easily between fake-cheery and terrifying that you might get a little dizzy in the several moments when the character abruptly drops his dimply friendliness for something more dangerous. 
 

For a cat-and-mouse thriller where Matthau is doing his normal shtick, I’d recommend checking out the way-more easygoing Hopscotch (1980). Charley Varrick, though, is the better movie — a fatless thriller where no one, not even an idiosyncratic star as aggressively charming as Matthau, can overpower the confidence of Siegel’s heist-movie craftsmanship. A-