Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is a former stunt pilot, crop-duster and current small time crook. He and a team, including his wife, rob a bank in a small New Mexican town expecting a tiny sum they’ll split amongst each other. This should be a routine, uneventful criminal endeavor. It should have gone smoothly, but of course it doesn’t. The police complicate this simple robbery and only Varrick and young partner Harman (Andy Robinson) manage to get away with the bag of money.
On top of the violent results the amount of money Varrick and Harman make off with it ends up being enormous. It turns out that was no ordinary bank, but one that is working with the mob to launder money. The small haul Varrick was expecting turns out to be over half a million bucks! The president of the bank Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) dispatches reliable and deadly hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker) to track these two crooks down and get that money back.
Varrick now has to avoid the police who want to arrest him and Molly who is awfully good at obtaining information, managing to ID Varrick and track him down. You can be sure it won’t be a friendly encounter.
Perhaps you would think a crime drama with the man famous for comedic roles like The Odd Couple and The Bad News Bears would be a pretty strange fit.
Following the success of Dirty Harry, Director Don Siegel moved onto Charley Varrick. One could envision Varrick being played by Clint Eastwood – who turned down the part. That casting seems like it could easily work. Or how about Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson? I could picture any of them as Varrick.
But Walter Matthau? Sure, Matthau had played heavies and dramatic roles in the past, but by this time that wasn’t the image audiences had of him. Still today, you might think it would be hard to accept him as a serious, intelligent criminal. A dark and gritty Walter Matthau? Come on.
You’re wrong! Matthau is terrific and the story itself is fast moving with enough twists and tension to keep you hooked until the very end. By then you’ll be applauding Matthau and kicking yourself for any doubt you might have had that he could slip into such a hardboiled role.
It’s sounds like a pretty simple story, but it all feels much more original than you might expect. Baker is great as the calm sadistic hitman and really puts the heat on Matthau as we watch him get closer and closer to Varrick.
What’s funny about Baker in this is how Molly could have been just a standard big heavy, but it’s the little quirks and his behavior watching him cooly interrogate for information that makes him so memorable. He can be calm and relaxed and then a minute later have an explosive burst of violence. Then he goes back to his relaxed demeanor. He makes a great, intimidating bad guy. As he starts to pinpoint Varrick’s whereabouts I really feel the suspense and worry for Varrick’s life.
As the story moves along and Varrick tries to formulate a plan to undo the dilemma he’s in, despite being smart it appears that there’s no way he can finagle his way out of this. No bargaining and no amount of running will save him. Try as he might the inevitable looks to be closing in. However, maybe he’s got a better command of the situation than the way it’s looking. Hmmm…
There’s some wonderful smaller roles populated by distinguished character actors. John Vernon who could play a weaselly, lying sleaze bag does his thing with ease. You know you can’t trust a thing that comes out of his mouth and he delivers his lines with this feigned sincerity that is just so darn enjoyable to listen to.
Robinson is the eager young shortsighted crook who doesn’t seem aware of the danger they’re in, even when Varrick carefully explains it. You know this guy is nowhere in Varrick’s league criminal-wise and shake your head at how naive he acts.
William Schallert as the Sheriff, Woodrow Parfrey, Majorie Bennett, Norman Fell and the lovely Sheree North as a photographer all pop up. Then there’s Felicia Farr as Vernon’s secretary who Matthau is able to do a bit of romancing with. That one scene might be the only stretch of what Matthau convincingly accomplishes in this.
But it’s the untraditional, quiet, subdued, ultra cool Matthau that you’ll be remembering most from Charely Varrick. Plus, there’s a memorable final confrontation where everything is up for grabs and doesn’t disappoint.
Terrific movie, one of Siegel’s and Matthau’s best. If you’re only familiar with Matthau as Coach Buttermaker, Oscar Madison or a Grumpy Old Man you should do yourself a favor and see how effective he is in a more dramatic role.
I always found it quite startling that Matthau himself didn’t think much of this movie or his performance. I’m not sure why. He really is quite impressive in a really excellent movie.