Sunday, January 11, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Charley Varrick

Don Siegel’s follow up to his nihilistic 1971 classic ‘Dirty Harry’ was a complete change of pace, and perhaps explains why it didn’t find the mainstream success its predecessor (or indeed any of his collaborations with Clint Eastwood) did.

‘Charley Varrick’ is a quirky crime caper which ambiguously trades on its star Walter Matthau’s affable comedic persona, but benefits from him playing straight. Which isn’t to say that it’s not noir to the nines when it wants to be.

Opening with Charley (Matthau) and his three-man crew pulling a slick bank robbery in sleepy Tres Cruces, Mexico, the plan goes awry when a local cop tumbles to the false plates on the station wagon driven by Charley’s wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), the gang’s getaway driver. The resulting shoot-out leaves Charley’s crew decimated, and he and headstrong young crim Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson, best known as the Scorpio Killer in ‘Dirty Harry’) are lucky to get away with the money.

Charley realises his luck might be running out when the haul clocks in a three-quarters of a million, not the $20-$30,000 he was expecting. Quickly realising the bank was laundering Mob funds, he turns his attention to how to stay alive now that the cops are the least of his worries. Things are complicated by the increasingly unpredictable Harman’s intent to start flashing his share around and living the high life.

Ex-stunt pilot Charley leaves Harman holed up in a trailer park and approaches photographer Jewell Everett (Sheree North), who runs a profitable sideline in forged documents, for a couple of passports. Little does he know that bank executive Maynard Boyle (John Vernon), simpatico to the dirty dealings at the Tres Cruces branch, has engaged pipe-smoking and effeminately named hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker) to get the money back.

Nor does he know that Molly and Jewell are known to each other, nor that molly has already tracked Harman down and had a little chat with him. That’s ‘little chat’ as in the kind of little chat Mr Blonde has with Marvin the cop in ‘Reservoir Dogs’.

In fact, a closer point of comparison might be ‘No Country for Old Men’. Molly comes off as a precursor to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, a man similarly dispatched by underworld to types to recover a certain cache of cash and eliminate anyone who stands in the way. Both stride implacably through their respective films. Both take their work very seriously. Neither appreciative levity or smart comments (“I didn’t drive six hundred miles for the amusement of morons,” Molly growls when a gaggle of hookers find his name funny, the line delivered in the same granite tones as Chigurh’s stone cold “Call it, friendo” to an about-to-die gas station attendant). The only difference is that Molly is ineffably polite to the people he doesn’t have to kill and he smiles a lot more. Even though it’s the smile of a shark or a tiger. Joe Don Baker is on top form in the role; for my money it’s his best work on the big screen.

Matthau is terrific too, making his second appearance on the Personal Faves list in an uncharacteristically straight role (after ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’), even if his rumpled, somewhat shambolic persona makes it a tad unlikely that he’d prove romantically irresistible to Boyle’s uber-prim secretary Sybil Bolt (Felicia Farr) in an extended scene near the end that’s pure plot device.

Still, that’s the only quibble I have against Charley Varrick. Siegel’s direction finds and maintains a spot-on balance of wry humour, pacy narrative and a handful of excellently staged and edited action scenes. Vernon is perfectly cast as the oily executive who gets a nicely ironic comeuppance. Robinson is also good. Scott, North and Farr add a touch of sassy Seventies glamour as well as being appealing in their roles. And Michael Butler’s cinematography is just glorious.

The denouement is highly memorable, all the pieces slyly put in place beforehand, and the switcheroo payoff arrived at via a standout car/biplane chase.

The crime caper was a staple of Seventies cinema – ‘Pelham’ and ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ are prime examples – and in my book the still underrated ‘Charley Varrick’ is the equal of either of them.

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