There are some filmmakers I admire and there are some filmmakers that made me passionate about film in the first place. Each month I will be looking at a selection of movies by one of those figures. This month’s Retrospective is all about the Chicago-born director/producer Don Siegel, who as well as directing one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films of all-time (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), also put together a formidable filmography of brooding film noir, robust crime dramas and haunting westerns. He was the man who had the honour of directing John Wayne in his last cinema outing (The Shootist), and was the filmmaker who had the biggest impact on the aesthetic development of one of America’s greatest living actor/directors – Clint Eastwood. Aside from Invasion, it is perhaps his work with Eastwood that will be most fondly remembered. From Coogan’s Bluff in 1968 through to Escape from Alcatraz, Siegel and Eastwood made five films together, each of which could now be considered classics. My own personal favourite was their civil-war horror/western The Beguiled, which will be reviewed later in the series. In the movie Charley Varrick, Walter Matthau is the unlikely Eastwood substitute, who does an immense job of playing against type, delivering one of the most impressive performances of an exceptional career. This was just another of Siegel’s talents, the uncanny ability to draw out deftly realised central performances from stars who were frequently straying outside their comfort zones, much like Steve Soderbergh nowadays. For me, Don Siegel was one of the masters of cinematic economy, and it was rare for a Siegel movie to out-stay its welcome. Not only were his films expertly paced, but they also exhibited a terse and concise visual language, that frequently looked for ways to show, rather than tell. Lacking pretension, the best of Siegel’s work was bold, daring and exciting, without ever feeling the need to force a narrative. 

Charley Varrick (1973)

Starr:- Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon, Andrew Robinson, Felicia Farr

Charley Varrick is the central character, laconically played by Walter Matthau, in this stylish and brutal heist movie, one of the lost gems of Don Siegel’s seventies prime. The movie opens with yet another eerie Lalo Schifrin score, a few twilight shots of the desert and then the image of Charley Varrick’s name going up in flames, an image that only fully makes sense with the films closing shot, a technical trick oft deployed by Siegel. Matthau’s Varrick is a rural crop-duster and long-retired stunt pilot who has taken to planning small-time heists of rural banks with a select band of criminals, including his wife Nadine and a fellow crop-duster Harman Sullivan (Andrew Robinson, who also featured memorably in Siegel’s Dirty Harry).

The start of the movie revolves around the robbery of a small New Mexico bank that, despite being meticulously planned, goes horribly wrong when a mistrustful local police officer decides to call in the number plates of Varrick’s car. The way in which Siegel initially focuses the audience’s attention upon a series of images of quiet, rural life (unforgettably focusing on a child trying, and failing, to saddle a mule), makes the sudden eruption of violence in, and around, the bank, all the more startling. In the aftermath of the robbery one of Varrick’s men has been shot dead in the bank, whilst his wife Nadine, the getaway driver, has shot a police officer in the head and has, herself, taken a bullet. Varrick, Sullivan and Nadine high-tail it out-of-town, changing vehicles along the way, but Nadine’s gunshot wound turns out to be a mortal one. Wasting very little time on mourning Varrick reveals a coldly ruthless streak by burning Nadine’s body along with the getaway car. Sullivan and Varrick then hole-up in a trailer park only to discover that the money they have looted is much more than they’d have expected a small rural bank to hold.

This plot twist is the real genius of Siegel’s ice-cold thriller, which I’m sure served as an influence on both Tarantino (with Reservoir Dogs) and the Coen Brothers (with their adaptation of No Country For Old Men). With the heist out-of-the-way within the first half hour of the film, Siegel turns his attention to the considerable fix that Varrick finds himself in. They’ve stolen close to ¾ million dollars in non-sequential, unmarked banknotes. The impulsive Sullivan is ecstatic with this surprise ‘killing’, however, the more cautious and canny Varrick can see only trouble ahead. Such a sum of money in a small-town bank is highly suspicious and Varrick’s fears are confirmed when the bank manager declares that only $2,000 has been stolen in the heist. Sullivan and Varrick are sitting on a small fortune, but it is a small fortune that has been lifted from the mob.

Siegel, who always had a knack of casting great character actors in key roles in his movies, now calls on the services of steely-eyed Joe Don Baker (as the chillingly sociopathic bounty hunter, Molly) and suavely menacing John Vernon (as the persuasive mafia front). Joe Don Baker’s performance is an early precursor of Javier Bardem’s relentless thug in the aforementioned No Country For Old Men. Almost completely humourless, with a policy of violence first, questions after, torture after that, Baker’s Molly is as repellent a screen villain as Hollywood has seen. Much like Bardem’s character in the Coen’s movie, Molly has a neat line in brief, but exacting, quips, commenting to a forger, that events seem to have ‘an air of finality’ about them. For a movie in which the violence is often occurring off-camera, it doesn’t shirk from showing the realistic extent of violent activity. Thus when Molly surprises Sullivan at the trailer-park we don’t see an absurd Hollywood-style brawl, instead Molly smashes Sullivan in the face, knees him in the groin and then gives him a swift blow to the side of the ribs. Likewise, after such a beating, Sullivan isn’t eager to do a runner, but rather is in excruciating agony from the broken ribs he would have clearly sustained. Molly is a predatory, stalking nightmare in human form, both deeply mistrustful of humanity and willing to deploy any means necessary to achieve his desired results. Siegel goes to great lengths to paint in this dangerous cipher figure and gives Molly a fabulously ornate pipe to smoke and a Stetson hat to prowl around the New Mexico landscape in.

Alongside Molly, we have John Vernon’s Maynard Boyle, yet another exercise in suited and booted reptilian charm, from an actor who made a career out of dignifying odiousness and backstabbing. Boyle isn’t a man of action, unlike Baker’s imposing muscle, but he is a man of words and those words are like the sweetest of poisons. In a fascinating sequence in which Vernon meets up with the bank manager on a cattle ranch, he manages to put the fear of god into the lily-livered bean-counter by taking him through a comparison of a cow’s life and human’s life, with regards to what is the worst that can happen to either. Ultimately Boyle thinks he has the smarts to outfox a figure like Varrick, whilst Molly believes in the implacable nature of violence. Both underestimate the cold-heart that beats slow as a snake in the chest of Matthau’s eponymous anti-hero.

What is genuinely fascinating about Charley Varrick is the way in which Siegel and his actors never really allow the audience to second-guess the action. Unlike The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, or the Bill Murray crime caper Quick Change, there is no ingenious robbery to marvel at here, but Matthau’s preservationary instincts keep much of the film’s action shrouded in mystery. You’re never quite sure what precisely Matthau is up to and much like Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne, he’s not likely to tell you anytime soon. His wonderfully simple, but scathing, response to a shopkeeper enquiring about why he needs explosive, is just one of the many priceless examples of how Matthau breezes through the eye of the storm. It’s an impressive feat that both Matthau and Siegel pull off, making you care about the activities of a character who has done little, or nothing, to deserve such affection.

The film ends with one of the most bizarre chase sequence I’ve witnessed, as well as an explanation, of sorts, for that peculiar shot at the start of the movie. Much like the closing sequence in Escape from Alcatraz, reviewed last week, there is a deeply unsettling quality to this final image, suggestive, as it is, of not only annihilation, the death of the ‘Last of the Independents’ (Varrick’s company slogan and an apparent ethos), but also the idea of a personal hell, or purgatory. Coupled with Schifrin’s dissonant tones, a major influence on Carpenter’s Halloween soundtrack, this final coda is as bleak an image as you are likely to witness in cinema.