Powerhouse’s new Blu-Ray of Don Siegel’s 1973 thriller Charley Varrick comes with the impressive set of extras this label has set as standard for their reissues of cult films. Sometimes, though, the information you get from those extras doesn’t quite tally up. The feature-length making-of documentary Last of the Independents begins with interviewees praising Siegel’s economy: the son of Howard Rodman, who wrote Siegel’s earlier film Madigan, describes Siegel’s films as “lean, spare and they didn’t give you anything they didn’t have to give you”. Elsewhere on the disc, though, there’s a Super 8 cut which edits the film down to one reel with explanatory voice-over. Historically fascinating though it is, it turns out that when you edit Charley Varrick down to pure plot, you lose quite a lot.
What Siegel’s film has – beyond its twisty plot and star cast – is a real sense of place. It’s set in the American Southwest, and the opening credits play over a lovingly observed montage of small-town life set to Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, funky score. Since this is a film from the director of Dirty Harry, we know that this idyll will not last. Equally, though, it’s not there for purely ironic effect. It’s easy to imagine that the film’s intended audience liked these sunny shots of kids working on the farm and good ol’ boys wolf-whistling girls in hot-pants almost as much as they enjoyed the shoot-outs and car chases that follow. Charley Varrick was released at the peak of a conservative backlash against the hippie era, and although it’s not a political film this backlash shaped its content from the opening credits down.
In Last of the Independents, we learn that Siegel wanted to cast Donald Sutherland as Charley Varrick, until the studio settled on an Easter release date. This meant reshaping the film as family entertainment. “Family entertainment”, at this point in American history, didn’t mean toning down the violence, or getting rid of the scenes shot in a real brothel (complete with a Stan Lee-style cameo for its founder and owner!). It meant getting rid of that longhaired trouble-maker from M*A*S*H and bringing in that nice man from The Odd Couple.
But even Walter Matthau’s twinkly charm isn’t enough to tame a Don Siegel film. Before the opening fifteen minutes are out, Varrick’s wife (played by Jacqueline Scott) has been fatally shot. He’s not unsentimental about this – he glowers at his accomplice for suggesting she’s a goner while she’s still alive – but once she’s dead it’s all business. Varrick needed to get rid of the car anyway, so he kisses her goodbye, takes the wedding ring off her finger and torches it with her body inside. It’s a bank robber’s Viking funeral.
We’re about half an hour into Charley Varrick before it reveals its plot. Varrick and his accomplice Harman (Andrew Robinson, who Siegel had cast in his first film role as the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry) have got away with the loot, but it’s dirty cash – the Mafia have been using the bank to launder money. The Mafia are introduced with a long zoom out from oblivious citizens walking through the street, through a window, to a series of anonymous boardrooms where men in suits make phone calls to hitmen like Joe Don Baker’s pipe-smoking Molly, who is set on the tail of Charley and Harman. Here, Siegel seems to be engaging with another, very different strain of early ’70s cinema. They’re straight out of one of Alan J Pakula’s paranoid thrillers, the exact opposite of the genial social-bandit archetype represented by Charley.
When Molly hears that Charley’s cover business – a crop-dusting firm – has the tagline “Last of the Independents”, he chuckles that it “has a ring of finality”. Charley Varrick is readable as a fable about small-town self-sufficiency versus modern, corporate America: even the bank Charley robs at the start can’t call the FBI in because they don’t have anything to do with the Federal Bank. But if Siegel could sense the times were changing, like his hero, he wouldn’t go down without a fight. The pleasure of Matthau’s performance is the same pleasure that modern audiences get from Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk: we know he’s capable of violence, but what could possibly cause this guy to lose it?
One shot captures the appeal perfectly. When Harman finds out that his big payday is Mafia money, he refuses to believe it, freaks out, says he’s going to spend it anyway. At this point, Siegel cuts to a close-up of Matthau slowly finishing his glass of milk, then casually murmuring “OK, kid, your call”. Matthau said afterwards that he didn’t really understand the appeal of Charley Varrick, but scenes like this show that Siegel definitely understood the appeal of Walter Matthau. He realised that the trick to making Oscar Madison into a stone-cold badass was simple: don’t change him, just change the world around him. The early ’70s audience must have sympathised with that.