Saturday, May 27, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Charley Varrick (1973) at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival

One of the unexpected pleasures of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival was CHARLEY VARRICK (1973), starring Walter Matthau and directed by Don Siegel.

I say unexpected because I'm not particularly a Matthau fan, and I tend to shy away from '70s action films because they tend to be grittier and more violent.

CHARLEY VARRICK was indeed more violent and gritty than I typically watch, but it wasn't so excessive I had any trouble watching it, and I was completely absorbed by the film's intricate plotting. It's an interesting, satisfying movie. Matthau was excellent, and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role -- which incidentally was passed up by Clint Eastwood.

Costar Andrew Robinson was Alan Rode's guest for a post-film interview, and Robinson related that during production Matthau would mutter about the stupid movie he was making. However, once Matthau saw the finished film he realized it was a lot better than he'd thought while making it!

Matthau's title character is a small-time bank robber whose gang hits a little bank in New Mexico. However, they are shocked to discover they've made off with much, much more money than they expected from that size bank.

Charley quickly deduces that the bank was a cash drop for Mafia money laundering, and they've got a much bigger problem than outwitting law enforcement. The Mob, in the person of enforcer Molly (Joe Don Baker), is now hot on his trail.

Despite dealing with personal grief in the wake of the unexpectedly bloody robbery, Charley calmly, methodically maps out a plan to deal with the Mob threat. As Rode said in his introduction, everything in the film happens for a reason; indeed, the strategies behind some of Charley's "chess moves" are only apparent much later in the film.

One of the anecdotes Robinson shared which I especially enjoyed was that during the robbery getaway sequence, when the hood of the car pops open, that wasn't supposed to happen, but the actors ad libbed as filming continued! That story called to mind GUN CRAZY (1950) just a bit, with its long, improvised bank robbery sequence.

Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, I was curious about a scene where a character I initially thought had died was later clearly still breathing, as Matthau's actions in that scene would be all the more riveting if the person was still alive. Alan Rode suggested to me that it was perhaps just an unnoticed blooper during a quick shoot. Watch for that early on.

Another interesting anecdote was that Robinson received stunt pay when he worked on Don Siegel films. (He had also famously played the killer in 1971's DIRTY HARRY.) He said that a long, brutal sequence filmed with Baker was not one of his favorite nights acting!

One of the pleasures of CHARLEY VARRICK is its deep cast of familiar faces. For instance, longtime "B" cowboy star and "A" supporting actor/bit player Bob Steele plays a bank security guard. Robinson related a touching story, that he told Steele "You were my childhood hero" and Steele cried.

Singer-actress Monica Lewis, a friendly presence on Twitter until her passing in 2015, plays a bordello madam; Lewis's husband, Jennings Lang, produced the film.

The great character actor Tom Tully (I'LL BE SEEING YOU) has a great part as a gun shop owner. It was his last feature film.

Also on hand are Felicia Farr, Sheree North, William Schallert, Benson Fong, Marjorie Bennett, Norman Fell, Woodrow Parfrey, Rudy Diaz, and Kathleen O'Malley (WAGON MASTER). Farr's love scene with Matthau is rather amusing in that in real life she was the wife of his good friend Jack Lemmon.

The movie was filmed by Michael C. Butler. It runs 111 well-paced minutes.

Parental Advisory: This one isn't for the small fry, between the violence and a scene in a brothel, although all things considered the sequences are fairly restrained and some of it will go over younger viewers' heads. There's also some foul language although again, I've heard worse.

After the film it was a pleasure to meet Robinson. I mentioned that my parents had taken me to see him in the stage production of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER with James Whitmore, and he immediately exclaimed "Long Beach! Jessica Walter!"

A funny postscript, this weekend our family was watching Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington in 2 GUNS (2013) -- now there's a violent movie! -- and I gradually had feelings of CHARLEY VARRICK "deja vu," with shots of the quaint small-town bank. When I saw the bank's name, I couldn't stop laughing; it was Tres Cruces Savings and Loan, the name of the town in CHARLEY VARRICK! (Update: Here's my review of 2 GUNS.)

CHARLEY VARRICK appears to only be available on a fullscreen DVD. It's also available for streaming rental on Amazon Instant Video.

November 2019 Update: CHARLEY VARRICK is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. My review of the Blu-ray is here.


Blogger Bill O said...

Matthau had what Hitchcock said of Robert Cummings - a funny face. Maybe detrimental to starring dramatic roles....Tho earlier he'd convincingly played a series of villains in supporting roles. This was Don Siegal's last great lean'n'mean crime film. After this he'd mostly get caught up in flabby star vehicles.

I know in yn the minority, but I thought Andy Robinson way over the top here. And even more so in Dirty Harry....

6:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charley Varrick is one of my all-time favorite movies. Don Siegel is one of my favorite directors, period.

The scene where Charley has to part with his wife is so well done, so perfectly understated — which is why it's my #2 saddest scene in movie history. It gets me every time!

#1 is Slim Pickens and Katie Jurado in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. (For someone known for being such guy, Sam Peckinpah chokes me up more than any other filmmaker.)

It's a shame that a decent DVD or Blu-Ray of Charley Varrick isn't available in the States. I've held onto my laserdisc player largely because of the letterboxed laserdisc.

Boy, I woulda love to meet Andy Robinson. That's so cool you got to say hello.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

It's just ironic that post-Varrick, Siegel lost his mojo - turning out indifferent films for Burt Reynolds, Michael Caine, Charles Bronson. He ended his days on a Bette Midler flop - assisted by Sam Peckinpah (!).

2:51 PM  

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