Despite ignoring logic, a marketing strategy implemented by some Hollywood executives back in the first half of the 1970s worked, although it didn’t quite achieve its entire goal. Mark Fraser ponders over an odd moment in the life of American cinema.
There’s a nifty story about Don Siegel’s 1973 crime opus Charley Varrick which comes up during the extras on Powerhouse’s Film’s Blu-ray re-issue of the heist caper.
According to Howard Rodman, whose namesake father co-wrote the screenplay with Dean Riesner, it had originally been envisaged the movie was going to star Donald Sutherland in a story laden with “kinks and violence”.
Universal Pictures, however, decided it wanted to showcase the film as its Easter release at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, necessitating a PG rating instead of the planned R one.
As a result the script was modified, and Sutherland was replaced by the presumably more audience-friendly Walter Matthau, whose previous half dozen screen appearances – including Gene Sak’s Cactus Flower, Gene Kelly’s Hello, Dolly! (both 1969), Elaine May’s A New Leaf, Arthur Hiller’s Plaza Suite (both 1971) and Martin Ritt’s Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972) – didn’t really anticipate his eventual hard hearted portrayal of the movie’s titular character.
While this reviewer cannot ascertain if Charley Varrick ever did appear on Radio City Hall’s Easter schedule (although, from all indications, it’s unlikely that it did*), one can only wonder what the brains at Universal must have been thinking when, while trying to water the whole project down, they failed to make another change which might have seen their rating goal virtually guaranteed – that being the director.
Looking back, one has to ask if the studio heads were aware of not only Siegel’s previous movie – 1971’s Dirty Harry – but also his entire body of work which, up until that time, contained its fair share of violence and darkness.
In 1964, for instance, his television remake of The Killers was deemed too violent for the tube and was given a theatrical release instead – a development that provided an interesting coda to the Hollywood career of future US President Ronald Reagan (it basically meant his final role was on the big screen and not on TV, where his thespian abilities had been shamelessly languishing for some years).
This was followed in 1968 by two other tough crime films, Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff, works which arguably looked like they wanted to be a little bloodier, but were restrained by cinematic standards of the day.
While Siegel’s next pair of films, the westerns Two Mules of Sister Sara (1970) and The Beguiled (1971), may have been a little more in line with what the Universal executives were thinking about when they kept the director on for the modified Charley Varrick, it’s kind of mind boggling that they seemingly overlooked Dirty Harry when it was released – a motion picture so polarising, intelligently mean and unsettlingly violent that it has remained a polemic in the annals of American crime cinema.
To put it plainly, this was not a film maker who seemed interested in pandering to a PG audience and making “family entertainment”. Rather, it was one who wanted to make rough and tumble adult drama.
Fortunately, and despite any pre-production alterations, Charley Varrick has this in spades.
Initially set in New Mexico (but shot mostly in Nevada), the movie starts off as a messy heist caper when a gang of thieves – crop dusting pilot Varrick, his wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), junior partner Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) and a masked accomplice (actor unknown) – have to shoot their way out of Tres Cruces’ tiny Western Fidelity Bank before making a desperate escape into the rural landscape, a set of circumstances which leads to a number of deaths (including Nadine’s, whose body is cremated by her husband in an abandoned getaway vehicle).
Although they manage to steal the unlikely sum of $765,118, it turns out the money belongs to the Mob, resulting in the survivors (Varrick and Harman) being hunted down by the sadistic Molly (Joe Don Baker), a ruthlessly vicious hitman whose modus operandi strongly suggests he enjoys his work.
From here on in the plot is pretty much by numbers. Knowing that the Syndicate will wipe them out even if they try to return the money, Varrick immediately starts looking for a way out while the younger Harman, a Vietnam veteran too cocky for his own good, gets beaten to death.
Ultimately the crop duster is forced to play mobsters Molly and Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) off against each other in a ruse that culminates with a modestly spectacular showdown in a car wrecking yard.
Although one could make a comparison here between Charley Varrick and the Coen Brother’s kind-of-similar 2007 crime opus No Country for Old Men, there are a few differences between the two movies that set them firmly apart.
Firstly, unlike Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who is on the run from hitman-from-hell Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in the latter film, Varrick – despite also living in a mounted trailer – is a very, very smart player who correctly refuses to underestimate the resolve of his pursuers.
Second, the booty in the Siegel movie is not drug money; it’s Las Vegas earnings set to be laundered somewhere else by the Syndicate. As a result the thieves do not inadvertently stumble across an amorphous international crime ring, but one that emanates directly from the heartland, thus exposing just how much America’s legitimised criminal underbelly infiltrates society – respectable or otherwise – at almost every level.
Additionally, Charley Varrick doesn’t really have a voice of reason, at least not in the same way as No Country for Old Men does through the eyes of soon-to-retire sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who finds himself slowly becoming an anachronism as the rules of the game change around him. If anything, the calculating and resourceful Varrick shows there really is a place for older men – all they have to do is learn to adapt.
One bizarre aspect of the Charley Varrick story is that – despite Siegel’s penchant for violence – the film eventually was issued with a PG rating, an outcome which “staggered” New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby, who, unlike the Universal execs it seems, found Dirty Harry’s philosophical underpinnings “distasteful”.
“The fun in Charley Varrick,” he wrote, “is not sadistic, though there are cruel moments in it, but in watching Charley attempt to outwit both the cops and the Mafia.
“The casting of Matthau in this key role helps tremendously. If the role were played by someone else, Charley Varrick would be something else entirely.”
This is true – it is a remarkable, but low key, performance by an actor who, around the time the film was made, was widely regarded as being way more funny than brutal.
Whether Matthau’s presence helped the movie get its desired PG classification is open to conjecture. It did, however, lead him to two other memorable tough American crime cinema gigs during the first half of the 1970s – that being in Stuart Rosenberg’s The Laughing Policeman (AKA An Investigation of Murder, which was also made in 1973) and Joseph Sargent’s most excellent The Taking of Pelham 123 a year later.
*When the film opened in New York during October 1973, it was shown at Loew’s State 2 Theatre (Broadway at 45th Street) and Loew’s Orpheum Theatre on 86th St. I have found no literature suggesting it had a separate run at Radio City Hall over any Easter break.
Top 10 Films reviewed Charley Varrick on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films. Its limited edition Blu-ray was released on January 22. Additional features include: Last of the Independents: Don Siegel and the Making of ‘Charley Varrick’ (2015, 75 mins) – feature-length documentary containing interviews with actors Andy Robinson and Jacqueline Scott, stunt driver Craig R. Baxley and Siegel’s son, Kristoffer Tabori; The John Player Lecture with Don Siegel (1973, 75 mins) – archival audio recording of an interview conducted at London’s National Film Theatre; The Guardian Lecture with Walter Matthau (1988, 89 mins) – archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Tony Sloman at London’s National Film Theatre; and Super 8 version (18 mins): original ‘Universal Eight’ cut-down home cinema presentation.
Words by Mark Fraser
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