Charley Varrick is based on a relatively unknown crime book by John H. Reese. It’s directed by Don Siegel, one of the great crime filmmakers, and was his first film after Dirty Harry had taken him from the B-list to the A-list. It’s about a former stunt pilot (Walter Matthau) who runs a sort of crop-duster business as a cover for his small-scale bank robberies. He teams up with his wife, played by Jacqueline Scott, as they go on their crime spree.
He’s an ordinary looking guy with a business, not the person they might think is actually robbing the bank. He, his wife and friend plan a robbery, but she gets killed in the process and they end up with a lot more money than they had expected. What they didn’t know is that the money they have been stealing actually belongs to the mafia and was being laundered by a small bank—and soon both the police and the Mob are on their tail. It’s a Catch-22 situation—he can’t give the money back to the bank because of the police, and they have to find a way to shake the Mob.
People always think of Matthau as a comic actor because of all his work with Jack Lemmon. But it’s one of his best performances—he’s kind of a dreamer in it, giving it the feel of a Western (which fits with the original title, The Last of the Independents, which ended up being the film’s tagline instead). At that time doing what was perceived as some more edgy films, but he had actually done some good dramatic work since the 1950s so it wasn’t really a radical departure—he had done loads of great work before The Odd Couple. Unsurprisingly, Siegel initially wanted Clint Eastwood, who he had just had a big hit with. But Eastwood didn’t feel that the character had any redeeming aspects, which Eastwood always looks for in his roles. Eventually Matthau agreed to take the part, but after it was released he said he didn’t understand or like it. It wasn’t a real success as a film, and Siegel was displeased with Matthau’s fairly public denouncement of the film despite it being one of his finest performances.
It’s full of character actors from that time—people you would recognise from other movies but not necessarily know by name, including Woodrow Parfrey, who was a friend of Siegel’s and therefore often landed roles in his films. Parfrey plays the bumbling bank teller who is robbed and is then told that the Mob will think it’s an inside job and come after him, giving him a meatier role than usual. It’s a great crime film of the 1970s, well-written and with believable characters. The dialogue lets you see where Tarantino got a lot of his ideas about naturalistic criminal dialogue, from films like Charley Varrick and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and of course the work of the writer Elmore Leonard.
Charley Varrick is an under-seen crime film, with one of the better downer endings of a period full of downer endings. It’s an unsentimental take on a genre that can, weirdly, be quite sentimental at times.
It’s an astonishing release with plenty of extras, starting with a 75-minute documentary called The Last of the Independents: Don Segal and the Making of Charley Varrick, which was previously on the German Blu-Ray. It’s an excellent look into the filmmaking process. There is also a 75-minute NFT lecture from Siegel that was recorded around the release of the film in the UK, and a 1988 Walter Matthew lecture, both conducted by Tony Soloman. Another extra is the much shorter Super-8 version, which in the 60s and 70s was a common way to view a film at home. Josh Olson and Harold Rodman have done a “Trailers from Hell” commentary that’s also included, and those are always fun to watch. A trailer, photo gallery and a nice booklet with essays, an overview of contemporary reviews, and Don Siegel on Charley Varrick.