Walter Matthau hated Charley Varrick. He must have been stuck in a contract or something. It’s understandable why he did, however. Matthau’s whole image is one of the likable curmudgeons. Varrick casts him as a gum-chewing (for that Matthau effect) bank robber… who doesn’t do it because he needs the money, but because crop dusting has been taken over by big corporations. He loses his wife (the driver in his bank robbing crew) in the first few minutes of the film–it’s impossible to like her or particularly care, since she just got done shooting two people–and then, with the character’s only possible sympathy coming from his recent widowing, Matthau beds a woman a couple days later (after threatening to kill her). I can imagine Matthau had some problems with the film–it’s the most amoral thing I’ve ever seen. There are no good people in this film, with the exception of a few law enforcement personnel (who the film doesn’t want the audience to sympathize with) and a black family (who, interestingly enough, the film does want the audience to sympathize with). It’s unbelievable.
I’m not sure if Siegel knew what was going on while he was making it–I kind of doubt it, given how virtuously he defended it in his autobiography–but I think, reflexively, the filmmaker knew… In many ways, Charley Varrick is Siegel’s worst film, just because there’s no excuse for the badness. He had a good screenwriter (Dean Riesner) and a fantastic supporting cast. Andy Robinson and John Vernon are both excellent. Joe Don Baker–who Siegel knew the audience would like more than Matthau–plays a redneck Mafia hit man, who’s a complete piece of shit (but revels in it) and is the most entertaining part of the movie. Women are inexplicably drawn to Matthau, but, for whatever reason, one can believe they’d go for Baker. Oh, and the hit man’s name is Molly. So, obviously, Reiser and Siegel spent more time on that character. Robinson, who played the psycho in Dirty Harry for Siegel, showed a lot of promise as a comedic leading man (which, regrettably, never happened). It doesn’t help when the film spends fifteen minutes making him appealing, only to turn him into another pat bad guy. The disconnection may come from Riesner’s writing style on Siegel’s films–he and Siegel would lay out all the scripts (by various writers) and cut paste what they liked. I have no idea whether or not they did it on Charley Varrick (my copy of Siegel’s autobiography is in storage somewhere) but it feels like they did.
Some of this film–the beginning–features some excellent work from Siegel. Beautiful camera movements, a great crane shot… but it all disappears by the middle of the film. Actually, once the film stops centering on Matthau, it gets a lot better. When Universal released Varrick on DVD a couple years ago, they did it as part of their pan and scan classics of the 1970s series–a bunch of eclectic releases no one would want pan and scan. I had the laserdisc so I didn’t get upset, but Varrick’s got a really good reputation and I think a decent DVD release would have led to a (deserving) critical reevaluation of this film. It’s rather offensive and pretty lousy. The supporting cast (and the bland, not-badness of the scenic writing) make it watchable, but I can’t imagine a reason to watch the film again.