The Story: When Charlie Varrick was a crop duster, he was “The Last of the Independents”, but corporate consolidation froze him out of the business, so now he’s a bank robber. When his gang accidentally steals an unreported cache of mob money, he realizes that they’re in real trouble.
How it Came to be Underrated: This one is only underrated in the sense of being undiscovered. There were just too many great movies coming out in 1973. Everybody who sees it loves it. It’s the sort of movie that makes you happy to find someone else at a party who’s seen it.
Why It’s Great:
- We’ve seen it a million times: The heist gone wrong. The bag full of mob money. On the run from both the cops and the mob… until they make their stand. The only thing that makes this one different is the level of skill involved. It’s a master class in writing, directing, and acting. When but in the ‘70s could a guy who looks like Walter Matthau be able to make his living as a leading man in gritty thrillers? After all, compared to other '70s megastars like Elliot Gould and George Segal, he was downright manly. Matthau tears into the role as a consummate professional thief holding back a surge of regrets and recriminations.
- And when but in the ‘70s could a guy who looks like Walter Matthau seduce a lady by suddenly muttering, apropos of nothing: “I like your bed”.
Another satisfied customer.
- The big mistake that thrillers make today is that the director only enjoys crafting the suspense scenes, but they’re downright embarrassed to have to explain the plot. The dreaded “exposition” scenes are rushed through or “jazzed up” until they’re incomprehensible. Then, when we do get to the actual “thrilling” scenes, they don’t work because we’re no longer invested in the story. Siegel’s film contains more actual thrills than many more “stylish” thrillers precisely because he isn’t embarrassed by exposition. He makes every incidental character interesting by taking the time to live in their world and share with us their point of view. He knows that verisimilitude can make any scene interesting. For instance, when the mob killer is in town, his bosses arrange for him to stay the night at a New Mexico brothel they own in the area. When you see a brothel in a movie, it’s usually either unbelievably glamorous or unbelievably wretched. This one is just plain real. Here’s the sign:
Here are the girls, neither fantasy figures nor pathetic victims:
And here’s my favorite thing in the movie, the sign on the inside of the room they put him in:
The sad, childlike, homemade quality of that sign says more about the poignant world of the girls there than any “mama didn’t love me” dialogue could.
- As the story unfolds, I love how Charley is always one step of the viewer, but only one step ahead. When the scene begins, we might not be sure why he’s doing what he's doing, or not know how he’s doing something, or what he’s going to do about some problem, but we catch up by the end of the scene with a little “a-ha!” when we figure it out. The writers toy with us, but they don’t abuse their position. There is no “everything you know is wrong” moment. Those moments are put there to show how clever the screenwriter is. In this movie, you’re thinking about how clever Charley is. And you feel pretty clever yourself every time that you realize what he’s up to.
Underrated Compared To: Siegel’s most popular early 70s thriller, Dirty Harry.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Matthau made two other great thrillers in the early 70s, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Laughing Policeman. Don Siegel made more than a dozen fantastic little thrillers over the course of his long career. Two of the best are The Lineup and his remake of The Killers (1964).
How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, the instant version has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I suspect that this is a “pan-and-scan” version. I don’t know about the dvd.
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