Matthau's a Right Charley
The first time I watched "Charley Varrick" I questioned why so many people champion this movie as it just didn't light my fire, it was just entertainingly average. But because so many people quite literally rave about it I watched it again and I got it, I suddenly understood why so many people praise "Charley Varrick". And the reason why, well it is what is written between the lines which makes it so brilliant, the motives and characters rather than just what happens on face value. As such "Charley Varrick" is one of those almost contradictions because watching it for simple face value entertainment it is an average 70s crime caper but when you read between the lines it becomes something special.
Former stunt pilot and crop duster Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau - Hello, Dolly!) robs a small town bank with his group of accomplices expecting to come away with maybe 10 or 20 thousand. So when Charley and partner Harman (Andrew Robinson - Dirty Harry) return to their trailer they are shocked to find they have taken over 750,000 and Charley quickly realises that they have mob money and must not only make sure the police doesn't catch them but also that the mob doesn't catch them either.
As already mentioned "Charley Varrick" is very much a contradiction and it starts with the actual storyline because on face value it is simple. We have this band job which goes wrong and when Charley discovers they have a lot more money than they expected puts 2 and 2 together to come to the conclusion that it is mob money. As such we watch as he tries to cover his tracks, knowing that the mob are going to hunt him and his partner down long after the cops have given up. And at the same time we have the crooked bank manager who is laundering the mob money trying to smooth things over whilst mob heavy Mr. Molly politely go after them. It's all very simple and not that interesting to be blunt, just a typical 70s crime story.
But here is the thing, you need to read between the lines and when you do you begin to question whether Charley Varrick is some small time robber or whether he was cleverer than you thought. From the way he covers his tracks, be it removing the ring from his dead wife's finger through to switching dental records and trying to buy fake passports you begin to question things. Is he just being fortunate when he happens to be out from his trailer when Mr. Molly calls or was he expecting that visit and even orchestrated it by making sure his address is known. You even begin to wonder whether he did have inside help, that he knew there was mob money in the small town bank in the first place. And amusingly for a man who is a criminal, who is also surprisingly emotionless we actually grow fond of him because of that question of was he just unlucky to steal mob money or was he a genius.
It's partly because of this ambiguity and depth that "Charley Varrick" becomes a much more interesting movie and at the centre of this is Walter Matthau. Now it is quite ironic that it is reported that Matthau disliked the movie because it is one of his best performances and it is because he constantly leads you to question things. You watch as he does something as simple as suggesting that the money can't be spent till the dust settles yet then does something deceptively clever such as swapping his partners dental records with his own and because Matthau does it in such a calm, normal manner you are never sure of how much he knows. Matthau is not alone and Joe Don Baker as Mr. Molly is quite an imposing character and a contradiction in himself because he is polite, courteous, smart looking but then beats the crap out of someone with a smile on his face.
Plus of course "Charley Varrick" is a Don Siegel movie and as such we have his wonderful gritty 70s style, the brutal action scenes and a sexual undertone. But again there is this wonderful ambiguity to Siegel's direction as on the surface it just looks like one of his 70s movies but then you read between the lines and suddenly a scene has another meaning because of the way he has constructed it.
What this all boils down to is that "Charley Varrick" is a wonderfully clever movie which requires you to read between the lines and embrace the depth of the story and characters. As such if all you want is a bit of 70s crime action then you may not be as enthralled as "Charley Varrick" is just average when watched as simple entertainment but brilliant when you read between the lines.