There are many worse things a man could do for himself than concoct a Walter Matthau film festival. Here is what Matthau was up to in the 1970s: The Bad News Bears, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, and today’s highlight, Charley Varrick. Commonalities among those roles include Matthau’s characters favoring behavior that allows him to give everyone else shit, and to take none from them.
The key to Matthau’s appeal is an uncommon directness. That way, even when acting abrasive, he was always accessible. It’s what made him an unconventional leading man for a while there – unconventional by traditional Hollywood standards, and unconventional even by the upstart standards of the 1970s, where guys like Pacino, Nicholson, De Niro, Hackman, and Hoffman, guys with character actor faces, somehow became stars. Matthau’s face was different than the rest, in that it was so much less prone to a smile, and on the rare occasions that one broke, it was always sly. Matthau’s face defined the term “hangdog;” it literally resembled a well-worn catcher’s mitt.
A word about the “catcher’s mitt” thing: This is a freequently-deployed critical cliché that had its most recent outbreak during the release of The Wrestler, but Mickey Rourke’s face doesn’t look like a catcher’s mitt. Mickey Rourke’s face looks like Buffalo Bill wearing a Mickey Rourke mask. Of all the actors to whom this cliché is applied, only Walter Matthau’s face truly looks like a catcher’s mitt, and his films were all the more refreshing for it.
Charley Varrick is a collaboration between Matthau and the great, eternally underrated director Don Siegel. Siegel is best known for his work with Clint Eastwood, most notably on Dirty Harry, but he had a long career before and after Clint, which encompassed such disparate work as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Shootist, and the Lee Marvin version of The Killers. Screenplay is by Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner, who wrote on Dirty Harry and High Plains Drifter. Cinematography is by Michael Butler who also shot Jaws 2 and real man’s classic Cannonball Run. Score is by Lalo Schifrin, who needs no introduction if you’re serious.
It’s simple and straightforward as far as the set-up goes. Charley Varrick and his crew pull off a small-time bank robbery that turns out to have a shockingly heavy yield – they’ve accidentally ripped off the mob and now they’re on mob radar. Are they gonna get away or end up dismembered, is the question, and the movie’s answer is at least a little surprising. The getting there is the rest of the fun. I’m not revealing much else because this one is a strong recommend.
Charley Varrick was also apparently released under the amazingly cool title Kill Charley Varrick! but not under Siegel’s preferred title, Last Of The Independents (Charley Varrick’s front company), and it features a remarkable unpretty tough-guy ensemble, including:
Andy Robinson, Scorpio from Dirty Harry, who here plays Charley’s hophead sidekick whose boozing unpredictability edges closer and closer to blowing the whole getaway.
Norman Fell, best known as the only landlord who mattered, Mr. Roper on Three’s Company, but had a lesser-known side career as a tough guy in movies like The Killers and Bullitt.
John Vernon, forever Dean Wormer from Animal House, who here plays a relatively similar heel role to his part in Point Blank, the shady fixer who fucks up (and eventually gets fucked up for the error).
Most memorably, there’s the cool cowboy mob enforcer on the trail of the missing money, Joe Don Baker as Molly, a shit-kicking killer who calmly murders for money but refuses to fuck whores even when presented free of charge. Man’s got his principles.
Charley Varrick can be seen or rented on Netflix, but it’d be worth watching next time it comes through your town on one of the many revival screenings set up by savvy crime flick aficionados.