Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Violence is golden in "Charley Varrick"

Cleveland Press November 17, 1973

"Charley Varrick," directed by Don ("Dirty Harry") Siegel, is a story about a small-time crook who can double cross and kill with singular efficiency.

Using a trick of casting, it is also about a genial, warm-hearted, easy going kind of guy. The trick is casting the title role with Walter Matthau who automatically registers as genial, warm-hearted and easy going.

There's nothing in the scrip that justifies these attributes but that's the way it comes out.

Because it's Matthau we're supposed to like him. Because it's Matthau there is a false felling of empathy.

But making Mickey Mouse a rat doesn't make Mickey lovable, not in the long run.

Aside from this distorted image-making the movie is marred by a set of unbelievable situations. Where Matthau's presence alters the villain into hero, Siegel's ability to stage a scene almost gets these situations past you.

Varrick (Matthau) is a crop duster. But we first meet him pulling off a bank job in a small town. It's a pretty noisy affair and by the time it's over several people are dead. The plan calls for blowing up the escape car. Charley's wife is badly wounded and Charley and his friend (Andy Robinson) agree she probably won't live. So Charley tenderly kisses his unconscious wife goodbye and loads the car with explosives.

Driving away, Charley and his friend engage in some time-killing talk with the partner asking Charley all about Charley's work and his wife although it's pretty well established that they know each other well.

Charley has turned to crime because he's a loser in legitimate callings. That's what he says but again there's nothing to establish this. He seems to have been getting along well enough. The situation hardly looks like a case of a starving man stealing a loaf of bread.

The loot turns out to be $750,000, more than a bank so small (purposely picked because it was small and the legal heat wouldn't be so hot) could possibly have on hand. When a far smaller sum is announced Charley correctly surmises that the bank is a drop from Mafia money.

Charley wants no part of Mafia heat, wants to give the money back but his partner nixes that plan.

Mafia hit man (Joe Don Baker) is sent in to track down the thieves and punish them. He is the kind who beats people to death and pushes over an old man in a wheel chair. The local Mafia contact is Chinese, interesting in a movie that generally isn't.

The plot gets overly contrived as Charley proceeds to anticipate his pursuers and out-maneuver them. For those of us who have trouble catching a bus it's always remarkable how everyone always shows up at just the right moment in these plans.

But even more wondrous is how Matthau manages to exude so much warmth in one of the most sadistically violent movies of the season.