Don Siegel Retrospective, No. 2 – Charley Varrick (1973)

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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.

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Don Siegel Retrospective, No. 1 – Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

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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 the movie reviewed below, 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. 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. Hopefully during this season I can remind you of his genius and acquaint you with some of his forgotten masterpieces, such as the Ida Lupino film-noir Private Hell 36, the Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster hitman movie The Killers, and the superb Michael Caine spy thriller The Black Windmill.  

 

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

Starr:- Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Fred Ward, Larry Hankin, Paul Benjamin

 

It seems hard to imagine nowadays, but before this Eastwood/Siegel effort the concept of a ‘prison-break movie’ was a bit rare and exotic. The film that almost brought down a beautiful friendship and working relationship (Siegel and Eastwood went to court over production rights to the movie) also spawned the divers likes of Down by Law, Con Air, The Rock, The Escapist and the stately, over-hyped, masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption. Prior to this dramatisation of, allegedly, the only successful prison-break from Alcatraz, the prison-break movie was primarily set in war-time conditions like that of Stalag 17, Papillion, or The Great Escape. Only a year prior to Escape from Alcatraz, Alan Parker and Oliver Stone had delivered a hard-hitting prison drama, also based on real events, which featured a prison-break, but Midnight Express was much more concerned with the injustice of its protagonist’s situation. In Siegel’s movie, much of his trademark leanness is incorporated into two hours of slow, but unrelenting, progress toward that moment of escape. It’s one of the most characteristic aspects of the sub-genre, as everything in the ‘prison-break’ movie, ultimately, is sacrificed to the tightly knit contrivances and tension of the escape.

 

Siegel maps out his intentions most clearly in his casting. Eastwood, as Frank Morris, is obviously the star of the show, but intriguingly Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) finds himself in the sadist’s hotseat, as the prison warden who takes such merciless satisfaction in the ways in which Alcatraz and, by extension, he himself can break a man. Furthermore he casts Bruce M. Fischer as the man most likely to try to make Eastwood his bitch, thus playing up to Fischer’s filmography of rapists, thugs and hoodlums. The fact that Eastwood isn’t, and never has been, anybody’s bitch on screen, is what Clint brings to the party, the granite certainty that somehow he will prevail, or die trying. Many people have expressed frustration at this larger-than-life projection of himself that Eastwood has selectively crafted through his various screen personas, but I find something fascinating in the tenacity with which Eastwood ekes out foible’s and failings in an otherwise rigidly composed and unbending individual. Frank Morris is another such projection, refusing to be bullied by Fischer’s Wolf and daring to cosy up to Benjamin’s English, despite the latter’s obvious disdain and mistrust of white men. In Morris and English’s sketchily worked out relationship you have the seeds for Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins cross-racial convict cosiness in The Shawshank Redemption.

 

What I love about Siegel, another of my cinematic heroes, is his unfussiness and utter lack of pretension, which makes his directorial work almost surgical in its precision. We are introduced to characters on a need-to-know basis, given just long enough with them to make them human (the convict who is desperate to know the baseball news), then they are folded into the machinations of the plot, or discarded. Robert Blossoms brief appearance as a long-term con who has turned to painting, only to have that snatched away from him by the petty spitefulness of the warden, provides Siegel with his simple, yet poetic motif of the flowering chrysanthemum, later used to plant a seed of doubt in the warden’s assertions that the escapees must have drowned.

 

The authenticity of using the long-abandoned Alcatraz to actually film in provides the movie with an atmosphere of claustrophobia and mindnumbing boredom, that helps to further amplify those moments when the prisoners do in fact get their breakout plan up and running. Some of the physical stuntwork that Eastwood engages in during the breakout, further enhance the impregnable mythos that surrounds his screen persona, although an over reliance on Eastwood’s cold charms can occasionally leave Siegel blind to things such as Eastwood’s lack of stubble on coming out of ‘the hole’, or the plot McGuffins, such as the case search, which, although contextualised by an earlier instance of guard stupidity and hubris, still seems almost absurdly implausible. What does sing off the screen is the utter isolation and social deprivation that these cons endure in their Alcatraz hell. This isn’t the prison-life of repeat rapings and fearsome physical confrontation, but rather a lonely existence observing time unremittingly passing away from the prisoners.

 

The final escape is really nothing compared to the many days, weeks and months these men pour away on their faint chance of freedom. The fact that Eastwood’s cellmate, the absurdly named Butts (animatedly realised by Larry Hankin, of Mr. Heckles infamy in Friends), ends up being thwarted in his escape bid, highlights just how painful the endurance of Alcatraz-time truly is. The movie strikes a tone of dread and horror, akin to the eerie supernatural aspects of Siegel and Eastwood’s work on The Beguiled, in its final closing credits image, in which the papier-mache head of Morris lies upon the hard, grey, remorseless cell floor, as the score hits a suspenseful note. Like a china doll’s head, or a ventriloquist’s dummy, this mock-up cranium has the basic physical likeness of a person, but somehow this only emphasises the absence of any living thing, leaving a thoroughly ambiguous ending on the film, that fits the lack of factual information about the aftermath of the escape.