Sunday, October 5, 2008
A Pair Of Pliers And A Blowtorch
Opening night of the Patton Oswalt-hosted festival at the New Beverly was a double bill simply called “Walter Matthau Saves The World.” If that doesn’t make you want to rush down to the theater then I don’t know what to say to you. In his introduction Patton talked about his own history of going to the theater, telling a few anecdotes about memorable experiences there. Lawrence Tierney, a regular at the place during the last years of his life, was prominently mentioned. Moving onto the star of the two films we were about to see, he pegged the first one as part of a subgenre that had never occurred to me before—the concept of Walter Matthau as the reluctant lead character, the one who seems to spend the first act saying, “Isn’t there anyone else we can get to take care of this?” From now on that’s what I’m always going to think of when seeing one of his movies. The first on the double bill was the immortal THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE and of course I was there but since I’ve written about it twice before I don’t need to say anything else. Of course it’s amazing. Second on our excursion into all things Matthau was Don Siegel’s 1973 CHARLEY VARRICK, a pretty damn entertaining film in its own right.
Walter Matthau is of course Charley Varrick, a crop duster whose motto is “Last of the Independents”, who as the film opens is heading up a bank heist in the tiny town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The robbery goes horribly awry, with several of his partners killed, including his own wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott). With only one (DIRTY HARRY’s Andrew Robinson) remaining, Varrick makes his way back to his trailer to count the loot. He soon realizes that their take is much, much larger than he expected and it doesn’t Varrick long to piece together that the bank has to have been a locale for money laundering by the mob. Naturally, we now cut to the mob represented by the amazing John Vernon, who soon dispatches ruthless killer Molly (Joe Don Baker) to find and take care of the culprits as Varrick begins to formulate his own getaway plan.
Maybe it’s just me, but how is this not the greatest double bill of all time? Walter Matthau, heist movies, the seventies? Cool music by David Shire and Lalo Schifrin? Robert Shaw? John Vernon? Joe Don Baker? CHARLEY VARRICK is no PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (still, what is?) but it does feel a little like the prototype of what you could show people to explain “Now THIS is how they did it in the seventies.” There’s a little bit of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in there between Varrick’s trailer park home and Joe Don Baker’s hired killer searching him out, as well as some of the films John Dahl made back in the nineties. It’s got a crackerjack pace even if some of the visual style and Lalo Schifrin music does scream out as something made on the Universal assembly line in the seventies. But even within the plot machinations and double crosses that you eagerly expect is a tinge of complexity to it—Baker is as vicious a bastard as he could be but the character spends most of his scenes relaxed and smoking a pipe and you still expect the worst. Vernon’s mid-level mob boss is even slightly complicated. One scene where he meets up near a cow pasture with the bank manager very well played by familiar character actor Woodrow Parfrey who serves under his thumb is particularly good as multiple levels are revealed of both men within just a few minutes, much of it in one shot. Parfrey explains how happy he is doing nothing more than running this crooked bank in the middle of nowhere and you wind up feeling sorry for the guy. Along those lines, it’s interesting that the smartest, most thoughtful characters in CHARLEY VARRICK, whether good or bad, are the ones who have no aspirations towards reaching the top of the heap. Matthau wasn’t looking to get this much money from such a simple robbery: “All I wanted was a small take, in and out, quick, no big deal,” he tells cohort Andrew Robinson, who doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s talking about. Some might want to know that the cow pasture scene has Vernon speculating to the bank manager that, to get answers from him, the mob might “strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch,” a line which will probably be familiar to anybody who remembers PULP FICTION. Vernon also has another interesting bit as he pushes a girl on a swing, curiously speaking with her, while still trying to assert his authority with others. CHARLEY VARRICK is filled with odd little touches like this and it never pauses to make a big deal about them. It also can't be said enough times just how cool John Vernon and Joe Don Baker are in this movie.
Also not made a big deal about is the oddness of Walter Matthau in a role like this but since it’s Walter Frickin’ Matthhau why shouldn’t he be the coolest guy around? For such a no-nonsense thriller it still takes a few moments to have Varrick pause, thinking about his wife who was just killed. The nastiness of the film clearly displays that she was no innocent—her character guns down a few police officers before she gets it herself—but those tiny touches allow us to think of what Varrick constantly has on his mind and provide a small amount of weight to a film which would otherwise be just cool viciousness. Matthau also beds a secretary played by Felicia Farr, otherwise known as Mrs. Jack Lemmon, and that provides some interesting subtext. Familiar faces Sheree North, William Schallert and Norman Fell have substantial roles and it’s good to see each of them used so well.
Patton Oswalt was pretty hysterical in each of his introductions. There were also a few raffles offering books that he was given by publishers hoping to get him to sign with them. For once, I got one of the lucky tickets. It was a fun night. CHARLEY VARRICK might not be a classic of the genre but it is a very cool movie and deserves to be better known. It will also put the phrase “Boxing the Compass” into your brain for all time.