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Charley Varrick

Charley Varrick
1973 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 111 min. / Kill Charley Varrick / Street Date December 28, 2004 / 9.99
Starring Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Felicia Farr, Andrew Robinson, John Vernon, Sheree North, William Schallert, Jacqueline Scott
Cinematography Michael Butler
Art Direction Fernando Carrere
Film Editor Frank Morriss
Original Music Lalo Schifrin
Written by Dean Riesner, Howard Rodman from a novel by John Reese
Produced by Jennings Lang, Don Siegel
Directed by Don Siegel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Charley Varrick (The Last of the Independents) is an entertaining crime thriller from Don Siegel in his post- Dirty Harry days. Auteur critics liked to point out that the title character's motto was practically the epitaph for all of Siegel's doomed protagonists, from Eli Wallach's Dancer in The Lineup to Lee Marvin's hit man in the remake of The Killers. This time around, Walter Matthau's laconic, resourceful bank robber is one man alone against the mob. If Charley Varrick had been the first to detect Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the pods might never have gotten a foothold on planet Earth.

Universal has raised a lot of DVD fan ire with their Studio Selections line of budget releases. Charley Varrick is only one of many mid-range library titles being released - no, unloaded - onto the market in cheap but inferior versions, just as Warner did back in 1998 before they realized that pan-scan transfers didn't sit well with the DVD aficionados. Moron - I mean, more on this below.


Ex barnstormers and crop dusters Charley Varrick and his wife Nadine (Walter Matthau and Jacqueline Scott) extend their risk-taking into new territory by going into the bandit business. But the robbery at the Tres Cruces Bank of New Mexico goes badly. Only Charley and his confederate Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) make it out alive, and then discover that they've somehow liberated $720,000 from a tiny rural bank. Deducing that it must be mob money, Charley has to think fast in order to come up with a plan that will allow the two of them to walk away with a full skin. Meanwhile, Reno mob boss Maynard Boyle (the late John Vernon) dispatches redneck hit man Molly (Joe Don Baker) on the trail of the missing loot.

Charley Varrick is told with the kind of precision and clarity we like in crime thrillers. All of the characters are neatly sketched, leaving plenty of room for detail and coloration in various underworld types like Sheree North's avaricious forger and Benson Fong's local operative. We enjoy watching Woodrow Parfrey's nervous bank manager and William Schallert's no-nonsense sheriff; this is one thriller where the lawmen are no dummies, even if they never come near to solving the crime.

The real issue seems to be good 'ol American independence versus what Varrick calls "the combine" - the organized corporations that use their economic clout to run family outfits out of business. Charley lost his cropdusting concern the same way entire towns are gutted by the Wal-Marts. The film doesn't say so but the implication is that Charley and Nadine's decision to rob banks is based on the notion that "the combines" make it impossible to make a living without being somebody's wage slave and are therefore antithetical to personal freedom. That's the one thing that adventurous Independents can't abide. Varrick is a holdover from the pioneer days and won't be fenced in.

He's also one smart cookie, and the pleasure of Charley Varrick is watching him cooly outfox the competition through equal parts cunning and ruthlessness. His sidekick Harman Sullivan (I suppose Siegel was rewarding Andy Robinson for delivering such a convincing Zodiac killer in the earlier Dirty Harry) has some good traits but Charley has to consider him expendable when he refuses to be sensible about the money and the mob.

Charley's master survival plan makes for great viewing, even when it depends a bit too much on variables he can't necessarily control. Just about the only character misstep is making Charley Varrick into a can't-lose ladies' man. His one night stand with Felicia Farr's mob secretary is so silly, we have to take it as an inside joke - is the pampered Farr really going to bed down with a guy who looks like a fertilizer salesman? Perhaps the paunchy, slack-jowled Matthau stepped into a role designed for some handsome stud leading man. James Bond he's not, although his "boxing the compass" solution to sex on a round bed always gets a good reaction from audiences.

Charley's nemesis is the racist creep "Molly" played to perfection by Joe Don Baker. He punches and arm-twists a path to the information he wants with a caveman glee not seen since Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. But the script makes some honest points about the life of this sadistic vermin - he sleeps only with the whores at one of those Nevada ranches, or with hardboiled mob underlings like Sheree North's Jewell Everett.

One slap and Jewell knows what she has to do; it comes with the perk of overcharging for passport photos. North's character is a lot like Anjelica Huston's racetrack fixer in the much later The Grifters; they have an illusion of independence but are both slaves to the mob. Is it really better than working for Wal-Mart?

Charley Varrick is laced with touches of grisly violence and some okay car versus biplane stunts, but its real pleasure is that of a tightly constructed and amusing thriller. Matthau was doing some interesting work around this time - The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three - and we're glad he was able to get this much variety into his career.

Universal's DVD of Charley Varrick isn't a total loss, but it doesn't augur well for the direction of the industry. The studio clearly wants product with a low price point to toss into "the combine's" bargain bins at the local Wal-Mart, and to save a penny has issued all of the Studio Selections in full-frame versions 'modified to fit this screen.' There aren't any menus. The movie just starts.

The transfer is okay and because Charley Varrick is a 1:85 film made widescreen by cropping, the full-frame aspect ratio shows more top and bottom without cropping left and right. On a normal television this leaves the action orphaned in the middle of the frame. Compositions are non-existent, as in an old-fashioned TV movie (many modern TV dramas are letterbox-widescreen now). Widescreen TV owners have the choice of watching a teeny image area swimming in the center of their 16:9 screens, or blowing up and cropping the image to 1:78, which results in a slightly blurry picture akin to watching so-so cable television.

Other titles in this series fare much worse, as they're true anamorphic 'scope movies ruined by old fashioned pan-scanning. For that reason I urge buyers to stay away from the excellent science fiction film Colossus: The Forbin Project until we get a watchable disc. This is a real step back for DVD. Someone needs to tell the Universal brass that those Wal-Mart patrons they so gleefully patronize appreciate decent DVDs as well. Very few are beer-swilling yahoos watching 15" boob tubes in a trailer park.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Charley Varrick rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Poor
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 6, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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