By: Bryant Daniels
You hear the phrase, “they just don’t make ’em like they used to,” being tossed around constantly. It’s a bane to be honest. Just because something isn’t what it used to be doesn’t make it any less. Culture shifts, attitudes change, people grow. However (yes there is a “however”), when it comes to 70’s film making, they truly do no do that anymore. It was a different time. It was a time of pessimism and anger, and a time of complete distrust in the government. After all, for a long stretch, the government continually shoved the American people in to wars and situations they did not want. Nothing’s really changed if you think about it. In fact, the only thing that has changed is our culture, and I firmly believe that has been driven by a rash of propaganda like films from the 80’s that made us all believe the American dream was still alive and kicking. Big corporation’s and the government have dictated our narrative, and it all started in the 80’s with the one thing that is mass produced and mass consumed: films. So, when I say they don’t make ’em like they used to, this primarily applies to Charley Varrick and its 70’s brethren, which would not get made today. It’s too smart and highlights the ploy of the “little guy” just a bit too much for studio executive’s to be comfortable with.
Alright, enough of my soap box. I’m here to talk about the Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) classic starring Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple) and Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall). So, just what is Charley Varrick? Well, on the surface it’s a bank robbery fairy tale turned nightmare turned fairy tale. The titular character shares a similar narrative with the majority of us. He’s tired of being stepped on by the big guy and he wants a way out. So, one day he decides to rob a bank with his wife and a couple of partners. It just so happens that on that particular day, the mob is using the same bank to launder their money. So, when Varrick accidentally steals a whole lot of the mafia’s cash, they call in professional Joe Don Baker to deal with the problem.
It’s a pretty straight forward story. It has a lot of fun, painted violence, car chases, intrigue, and feels like a strange hybrid between a spy movie, a heist movie, and a comedy. Matthau plays Varrick as the smartest guy in the room, and it never comes across smug, or even ballsy. Varrick is constantly the coolest cat in any situation, and he’s thinking so far ahead of everyone involved that they struggle to keep up. However, it’s never not believable. Matthau uses quiet moments to embrace the intrigue and build the audience’s suspense. Siegel, being behind the camera, actually does some of his best work using lighting, wordplay, and close ups to draw a narrative, and personally speaking, I prefer Charley Varrick over Dirty Harry. And Joe Don Baker as the main, yet sidelined antagonist is menacing and snake like, but carries a certain charm that makes you want to trust him.
As simple of a story as it is, the commentary is heavy. Charley is “The Last of the Independents,” he’s the struggling version of the American Dream that has been caused by corporate greed and belief in a system that was broken when politics became synonymous with greed instead of public service. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as my opening was a bit heavy, but hopefully you get the picture. Overall though, seek this one out. The story telling is brilliant, the execution is stunning, and the performances are subtly venomous. Plus, the final sequence is a work of art!
Charley Varrick – 1973
Starring: Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Andrew Robinson, and Norman Fell
Directed by: Don Siegel
Running time: 111 MinutesShare: