Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Charley Varrick" and Don Siegel: The Last of the Independents

Why hasn't Don Siegel received his due recognition as an important American filmmaker? He certainly directed his share of influential films (e.g., Dirty Harry) and socially significant ones (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers). And yet, although acclaimed in Europe, he lacks the auteur status bestowed on contemporaries such as Sam Peckinpah. It's a puzzling question, made even more perplexing when one considers Siegel's underrated gem Charley Varrick.

Made in 1973, Charley Varrick stars Walter Matthau as the title character, a crop duster who makes ends meet by robbing small-town banks. When a patrolman recognizes a stolen license plate, one of Charley's robberies goes horribly awry, resulting in three fatalities. Charley and his lone surviving gang member, the dim-witted Harman (Andrew Robinson), discover their bank haul amounts to $765,000. Harman is thrilled; Charley is not. He realizes immediately that they robbed a bank used by the mob. It's not long before the police, the FBI, and a mob hit man start looking for Charley and Harman. Their challenge, though, is that they underestimate the resourceful Charley, who methodically anticipates their every move.

Joe Don Baker as hit man Mr. Molly.
Charley Varrick is a prototypical Siegel anti-hero. He's a criminal, though his motives are driven by a poor economy. He never kills anyone, although he indirectly leads the hit man to Harman when he realizes the latter has become a liability. He is morally dubious, but "better" than the ruthless hit man and corrupt bank officials. In a sense, Charley is not dissimilar from Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry--who bends the law mightily to enforce it. Another similarity is that both men work outside the system, a point emphasized by the slogan on Charley's business signs: "The last of the independents" (which was the original title of the film). However, there remains a key difference between Charley and Harry--they are on opposite sides of the law.

Matthau in disguise for the robbery.
With an anti-hero at the heart of the film, it's essential to cast an actor with some degree of audience appeal. The gruff, likable Matthau fits the bill perfectly, somehow coming across as curmudgeonly and cold. The bottom line is that, despite his significant moral flaws, it's easy to root for Charley because we admire his ingenuity--and because he's played by Walter Matthau.

Siegel directs Charley Varrick with remarkable efficiency. The title credits roll over the same New Mexico town where the robbery occurs: farm workers whistling at a pretty girl; kids playing in a sprinkler; a patrol car cruising down a lonely highway. By the time Siegel's directing credit appears, we already have a feel for the locale, its residents, and the economy. Another example of Siegel's visual brevity is when he shows a close-up of Charley's hand as he slides a wedding band off the body of the female driver of the getaway car. He places the ring on his pinkie, next to a matching band. In one short sequence, Siegel has conveyed that Charley was married, he loved his wife, and must now cope with her death in addition to his self-created mess.

Despite its craftsmanship, Charley Varrick is occasionally sloppy around the edges. In a minor miscue, the plot has Charley sleep with the bank boss's pretty assistant. It makes no sense for either character. She's going to make love with a stranger that stalked her and broke into her apartment? He just lost his wife, but is ready for a one-night stand?

To fully appreciate Charley Varrick, though, one must accept such sporadic missteps. Overall, it's a first-rate action film with a well-cast, interesting protagonist. It makes a strong case for re-evaluating Don Siegel's filmography and recognizing him as a creative force in American cinema from the 1950s through the 1970s.


  1. Truly, as you said, an "underrated gem". Pleased you mentioned "Siegel's visual brevity". Whatever happened to that sort of thing? Why do directors feel audiences need to be hit over the head?

  2. CHARLEY VARRICK is certainly an under-rated film (and Matthau was outstanding in the title role). Don Siegel basically taught Clint Eastwood how to direct films.

  3. Agree that Don Siegel deserves more accolades than he receives - hard to believe when one consideres his films in a swoop with several highly influential, as you mention. I suffer from the "what did he direct" syndrome myself, I have to admit. And Charley Varrick is one of his best. Matthau too, seems underrated to an extent. Always memorable.

    Great tribute to director and film - much deserved.


  4. I'm going to have to do research on Don Siegel because I am unfamiliar with his work.

    I haven't seen this film, but I will watch Walter Matthau in anything. No matter how gruff his character, there's always something likable about him.

  5. This is an all-time fave of mine because it's character actor heaven - Bill Schallert, Jacqueline Scott, Sheree North, Tom Tully, Woodrow Parfrey, and a bunch of others that I'm sure to remember once I hit Publish.

    There's also Joe Don Baker's clasic line to the hooker at the safe house:
    I didn't drive two hundred miles for the amusement of morons."

    And about the bed scene with the bank lady:
    That may have been an in-joke.
    The lady in question was Felicia Farr, Jack Lemmon's real-life wife, with whom Walter Matthau was no doubt familiar.
    Anyway ...

  6. Some great comments here! I've read where Clint Eastwood credits Siegel for teaching him how to direct. The supporting cast is indeed very strong. Joe Don Baker didn't get a lot good roles, but his Mr. Molly is certainly memorable...the kind of character that would attract Tarantino.

  7. Joe Don Baker is so great in this. There's that scene when he breaks down a guy in front of the guy's family. Totally chilling, and yet it's all set in a quiet sunny back yard (I think, it's been a while).

    Oh, and as icing on the cake there's also John Vernon doing what he did better than anybody ever - the totally untrustworthy douche. He did this kind of role to perfection in anything from POINT BLANK to ANIMAL HOUSE, and this is no exception.

    Why this was not a huge hit I just can't understand.

    1. Yes, that's a potent scene where Mr. Molly degrades the father in front of his son.

  8. I've learned over the years that the name Don Siegel means a great time at the movies. Charley Varrick is one of my favorites. And I like the unexpectedness of Walter Matthau playing this kind of anti-hero lead. But in the back of my head I always had the idea that maybe this movie was originally meant for Clint Eastwood. That would help explain the one-night stand scene a little.