|"The Last of the Independents"|
I was in high school when Don Siegel's masterful crime film, CHARLEY VARRICK was first released in 1973. Somehow, I managed to miss seeing this film in the theaters back then and over all of these years, I had never seen it until the other day.
Walter Matthau stars in the title role as Varrick, a former stunt/crop duster pilot who has decided to try his hand at robbing banks. Varrick and his gang (Felicia Farr, an unnamed actor and Andy Robinson, whose portrayal of the psycho serial killer "Scorpio" in Siegel's DIRTY HARRY gained the young actor a fair measure of cinematic immortality) target a small bank in a one-horse town in the high country of New Mexico. They get the money but the heist goes wrong, leaving the unnamed guy and two sheriff's deputies dead, the getaway driver (Farr) mortally wounded and Matthau and Robinson on the run.
One of the two forces that are tracking the bank robbers is the law, represented by the sheriff of the small-town (veteran character actor William Schallert) and the District Attorney (the no-nonsense Norman Fell). But it's the other group on their trail that gives Varrick the most to worry about.
It seems that the money that was stolen (a considerable amount for such a small bank) is actually mob money that has been skimmed by the shady bank manager (the oily Woodrow Parfrey) and his boss, John Vernon. Vernon knows the mob will kill them if they don't get the money back so he sets his own sadistic killer-for-hire (Joe Don Baker) out to kill Matthau and Robinson.
It was sheer dumb luck that Varrick chose the wrong bank to rob. But he's no chump, no rank amateur, no raw beginner. Matthau plays Varrick with an understated air of calmness and composure. His mind is always turning, always figuring the odds and the angles and the rumpled, slightly over-the-hill criminal is always one step and several moves ahead of his pursuers.
The good guys (Schallert and Fell) in this film are mostly ineffectual and are merely supporting players. Director Siegel's real concern here is bad guys (Matthau and Robinson) and worse guys (Vernon and Baker). We're forced to cheer for the bank robber and our sympathies and concerns are squarely with Matthau. He's such a likable guy that we want him to get away with the loot.
Siegel orchestrates the action like the seasoned pro that he was at this point in his career and the climax (involving a chase/battle between a bi-plane and an automobile) is expertly choreographed. The script (adapted from the John H. Reese novel THE LOOTERS by Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman) is smart, the plot is swift and the locations (Nevada subbing for New Mexico) add greatly to the film, giving us a sun-drenched crime thriller. But the real joy in watching CHARLEY VARRICK comes from watching all of these terrific actors do their stuff. They are all veterans and pros and they all give 100% . I miss actors like Matthau, Schallert, Fell, Parfrey and Vernon. They were always a treat to watch and they were all solid assets to the films they appeared in.
I had to wait forty years to see it but CHARLEY VARRICK was well worth the wait. Highly recommended.