Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In short: Charley Varrick (1973)

Technically, robbing a tiny small town bank should be a job of easy in, easy out, but a chain of unfortunate circumstances leaves former stunt pilot Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) in quite some trouble. Not only are two of his three partners – one of whom was Charley’s wife – dead but the body count of the robbery also includes a couple or three cops, leading to a rather more enthusiastic hunt for the criminals as Charley had planned on.

Then there’s the fact that Harman (Andrew Robinson), the last surviving partner, is not the most stable of men on his best day, and it certainly isn’t his best day, or week. Even worse, there’s an absurdly large amount of money for such a little bank involved, though most of it doesn’t seem to officially exist, which leads Charley to the conclusion he’s just painted a second target on his back by stealing mafia money.

Charley’s right, too, so soon, not only the police is after him but also sadistic mafia killer Molly (Joe Don Baker). Charley isn’t quite as doomed as you’d assume, though, for his unassuming demeanour hides a pretty effective sociopath with a clever plan to get away with his money, while getting rid of anybody posing a risk to him.

Generally, I’m not the biggest fan of Don Siegel, his films often not quite hitting the spot for me I’d want them to hit. However, there’s really little I could come up with to say against Charley Varrick. Well, there’s one rather embarrassing scene that suggests Walter Matthau to have the sexual magnetism of James Bond, but apart from that peculiar misstep I’ll just write off as a harmless symptom of the director’s inability to cope with female characters (something the rest of the film avoids by not including many women with roles large enough to demand actual characterisation to begin with, of which you can make what you wish), there’s nothing about Charley Varrick that isn’t a lean and decidedly mean crime film.

This film pushes the same buttons of enjoyment that Donald Westlake’s Parker novels did, with a bunch of decidedly unpleasant men fighting it out among another until the least pleasant of them wins in the end, a large part of the pleasure lying exactly in the fact how amoral the whole affair is, with neither Siegel nor Howard Rodman’s and Dean Riesner’s script (based on a novel by John Reese I haven’t read) attempting to make anyone involved look nicer or more heroic than anyone else. Crime, it turns out, is not a game involving the nice.

The film’s plot is pleasant pulpy, containing just the right amount of violence, and is filmed by Siegel in a tight yet laconic manner that isn’t at all interested discussing the ethics or deep psychological reasons of what’s happening on screen, while still finding space to give the characters more dimensions than “is a decidedly unsexy sociopath” or “is a decidedly unsexy psychopath”. The actors are doing the expected fine jobs too, Matthau giving his sociopath bit so well I’m a little disappointed he never got to play Parker, and Joe Don Baker visibly enjoying being the sadistic monster with the mock-polite first impression.

It all comes together quite perfectly, the film setting up a situation that seems ideal for another tale of doomed losers trying to make it big, yet using it instead for a tale about monsters trying to survive in a world filled with other monsters.

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