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Walter Matthau’s dark side exposed in Charley Varrick

The self-proclaimed “last of the independents.”

Gangster Story: Would you believe Walter Matthau as a psycho-killer? Neither did he.
Gangster Story: Would you believe Walter Matthau as a psycho-killer? Neither did he.

Walter Matthau? A bank robbing serial killer wanted by both good guys and bad guys alike?! Times were tough. The actor had to hock wedding presents just to pay the rent. The $2500 this minisculely budgeted noir paid Matthau to write and direct saved his marriage. For more of Matthau’s criminally overlooked dark side, there’s Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick.

Gangster Story (1960)

In many cases, actors wait decades for a chance to direct. But with less than ten supporting roles to his credit, Walter Matthau was given what would prove to be his one and only shot behind the camera. He stars as Jack Martin, a small-time stickup man on the lam in an equally two-bit town who comes up with a foolproof caper. He recruits the aid of law enforcement by pretending to be a movie producer filming a holdup scene in the U.S. National Bank. The cops look on, thinking it’s a dress rehearsal, as Martin uses the hand that isn’t cradling the sack of cash to wave goodbye. With the cops in hot pursuit, he hangs a right into the local library, where we meet Mrs. Matthau, Carol Grace — aka Truman Capote’s real-life inspiration for Holly Golightly. Before the sixty-five minute running time expires, Martin is responsible for numerous fatalities, including the murder of an officer. And it turns out the stolen loot belongs to the mob. According to IMDB, Matthau called it “the worst ever made.” Low-rent though it may be — every word of dialogue is post-synched — it is easier to get through than Dennis the Menace. Watch it on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lrzbooqqgxs&t=25s

Charlie Varrick (1973)

Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is the self-proclaimed “last of the independents.” His career has sent him soaring from sideshow barnstormer to cinema’s second-most distinguished crop duster pilot. (Varrick flies “South by southwest.”) When the situation calls for a little extra folding green, Charley and wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) partner with a young gun — in this case Harman Sullivan, played by director Don Siegel’s enduringly wacko discovery, Andy Robinson (Dirty Harry) — and knock over a small-town depository. On a good day, their take is 20 grand. That’s a far cry from the $2000 the evening news reported missing, to say nothing of the three-quarters-of-a-million stashed in the back of Varrick’s van. On a bad day, you lose a member of the gang; on this run, it’s the getaway driver Nadine. A terrible day brings the realization that the bank you held up is not a branch of the Federal Reserve, but a mafia laundromat.

Molly’s (Joe Don Baker, a guy you’re gonna dread) a steely, pipe-smoking enforcer. Beneath his cowboy hat skulks a soul more feared than loved. He’s the type of arrogant S.O.B who’ll look a Madame square in the eye and boast that it’s one thing to spend the night in a whorehouse, and another to sleep with whores. He answers only to Maynard Boyle (John Vernon), the mob chieftain whose idea it was to stash the skimmed loot in the First National Bank of nowhere. Vernon is equally at home playing a backdoor banker as he is a loquacious capo. In the middle of a cow field, draped in nature’s beauty, buck-passing Boyle gives bank manager Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey) the runaround, informing him that the mob will strip him naked and go to work with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. Before returning to the car, Boyle slings an arm around a suddenly pale Young’s shoulder and in a most conciliatory tone comes out with, “If you need money, I can help.” If Vernon didn’t serve as inspiration for Albert Brooks’ compassionate butcher in Drive, he should have.

This landed smack in the middle of a five-film dramatic stretch that began for Matthau in 1971 with Kotch and Pete ‘n’ Tillie and ended three years later with The Laughing Policeman and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In any other actor’s hands, the lack of respect Sullivan affords Nadine’s death would have resulted in a busted jaw, if not worse. Watching Matthau’s face as he calmly shifts gears is a mini-Master Class in acting. Rather than blow his cool and risk getting clobbered by a thug half his age, Charley waits until the time is right, and the methodology imaginative enough, so that logic and purpose persist throughout the takedown of his apprentice.

For years, this was a favored Matthau performance, so imagine the distress upon learning of his distaste for the character. (Written with Siegel’s buddy Clint Eastwood in mind, the actor took a pass, on the grounds that he couldn’t find any good in the character to offset the unlikability.) Siegel credited the film’s poor box office performance to Matthau’s unwillingness to get behind the picture. When Matthau argued in favor of exposition, the director thanked him for the input and went about his work as he saw fit. As the moonlit introductory shot establishes, this is “A Siegel Film.” “Walter wants to see the banana before he slips on it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I don’t want everything explained and then see it.”

Always an editor at heart, Siegel broke his bones during the war years cutting montages at Warner Bros. Few directors were capable of touching Siegel’s studied approach to pacing and editing, particularly when applied to building tension within action scenes. The plan was to swap out cars in a secluded mountainside spot. Moments before pouring blasting powder on her corpse, Charley removes Nadine’s wedding ring and puts it on his pinky. (It’s the one shred of remorse put on view.) The highwaymen don’t stick around waiting for the car to blow. Only when the scene is as far from mind as our duo is from the mountain do we hear the “bang in the hill” go off.

Sorry, Charley. Despite gum-chewing Matthau’s fervent desire to detract from the role, any character who responds to the dynamite salesman’s “May I ask what that’s for?” with “You certainly may” is a genius in my book. Be sure to not stick around for the closing credit scene. There isn’t one. For years, I wondered what the last film was that sent audiences packing with a simple “The End” or studio logo, not a “Cast of Characters” list or the 15 minute closing credit sequence we’ve grown accustomed to. Do we have a winner? Feel free to post your thoughts in the box below.

Stream it tonight on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, Apple TV, etc.

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Gangster Story: Would you believe Walter Matthau as a psycho-killer? Neither did he.
Gangster Story: Would you believe Walter Matthau as a psycho-killer? Neither did he.

Walter Matthau? A bank robbing serial killer wanted by both good guys and bad guys alike?! Times were tough. The actor had to hock wedding presents just to pay the rent. The $2500 this minisculely budgeted noir paid Matthau to write and direct saved his marriage. For more of Matthau’s criminally overlooked dark side, there’s Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick.

Gangster Story (1960)

In many cases, actors wait decades for a chance to direct. But with less than ten supporting roles to his credit, Walter Matthau was given what would prove to be his one and only shot behind the camera. He stars as Jack Martin, a small-time stickup man on the lam in an equally two-bit town who comes up with a foolproof caper. He recruits the aid of law enforcement by pretending to be a movie producer filming a holdup scene in the U.S. National Bank. The cops look on, thinking it’s a dress rehearsal, as Martin uses the hand that isn’t cradling the sack of cash to wave goodbye. With the cops in hot pursuit, he hangs a right into the local library, where we meet Mrs. Matthau, Carol Grace — aka Truman Capote’s real-life inspiration for Holly Golightly. Before the sixty-five minute running time expires, Martin is responsible for numerous fatalities, including the murder of an officer. And it turns out the stolen loot belongs to the mob. According to IMDB, Matthau called it “the worst ever made.” Low-rent though it may be — every word of dialogue is post-synched — it is easier to get through than Dennis the Menace. Watch it on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lrzbooqqgxs&t=25s

Charlie Varrick (1973)

Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is the self-proclaimed “last of the independents.” His career has sent him soaring from sideshow barnstormer to cinema’s second-most distinguished crop duster pilot. (Varrick flies “South by southwest.”) When the situation calls for a little extra folding green, Charley and wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) partner with a young gun — in this case Harman Sullivan, played by director Don Siegel’s enduringly wacko discovery, Andy Robinson (Dirty Harry) — and knock over a small-town depository. On a good day, their take is 20 grand. That’s a far cry from the $2000 the evening news reported missing, to say nothing of the three-quarters-of-a-million stashed in the back of Varrick’s van. On a bad day, you lose a member of the gang; on this run, it’s the getaway driver Nadine. A terrible day brings the realization that the bank you held up is not a branch of the Federal Reserve, but a mafia laundromat.

Molly’s (Joe Don Baker, a guy you’re gonna dread) a steely, pipe-smoking enforcer. Beneath his cowboy hat skulks a soul more feared than loved. He’s the type of arrogant S.O.B who’ll look a Madame square in the eye and boast that it’s one thing to spend the night in a whorehouse, and another to sleep with whores. He answers only to Maynard Boyle (John Vernon), the mob chieftain whose idea it was to stash the skimmed loot in the First National Bank of nowhere. Vernon is equally at home playing a backdoor banker as he is a loquacious capo. In the middle of a cow field, draped in nature’s beauty, buck-passing Boyle gives bank manager Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey) the runaround, informing him that the mob will strip him naked and go to work with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. Before returning to the car, Boyle slings an arm around a suddenly pale Young’s shoulder and in a most conciliatory tone comes out with, “If you need money, I can help.” If Vernon didn’t serve as inspiration for Albert Brooks’ compassionate butcher in Drive, he should have.

This landed smack in the middle of a five-film dramatic stretch that began for Matthau in 1971 with Kotch and Pete ‘n’ Tillie and ended three years later with The Laughing Policeman and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In any other actor’s hands, the lack of respect Sullivan affords Nadine’s death would have resulted in a busted jaw, if not worse. Watching Matthau’s face as he calmly shifts gears is a mini-Master Class in acting. Rather than blow his cool and risk getting clobbered by a thug half his age, Charley waits until the time is right, and the methodology imaginative enough, so that logic and purpose persist throughout the takedown of his apprentice.

For years, this was a favored Matthau performance, so imagine the distress upon learning of his distaste for the character. (Written with Siegel’s buddy Clint Eastwood in mind, the actor took a pass, on the grounds that he couldn’t find any good in the character to offset the unlikability.) Siegel credited the film’s poor box office performance to Matthau’s unwillingness to get behind the picture. When Matthau argued in favor of exposition, the director thanked him for the input and went about his work as he saw fit. As the moonlit introductory shot establishes, this is “A Siegel Film.” “Walter wants to see the banana before he slips on it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I don’t want everything explained and then see it.”

Always an editor at heart, Siegel broke his bones during the war years cutting montages at Warner Bros. Few directors were capable of touching Siegel’s studied approach to pacing and editing, particularly when applied to building tension within action scenes. The plan was to swap out cars in a secluded mountainside spot. Moments before pouring blasting powder on her corpse, Charley removes Nadine’s wedding ring and puts it on his pinky. (It’s the one shred of remorse put on view.) The highwaymen don’t stick around waiting for the car to blow. Only when the scene is as far from mind as our duo is from the mountain do we hear the “bang in the hill” go off.

Sorry, Charley. Despite gum-chewing Matthau’s fervent desire to detract from the role, any character who responds to the dynamite salesman’s “May I ask what that’s for?” with “You certainly may” is a genius in my book. Be sure to not stick around for the closing credit scene. There isn’t one. For years, I wondered what the last film was that sent audiences packing with a simple “The End” or studio logo, not a “Cast of Characters” list or the 15 minute closing credit sequence we’ve grown accustomed to. Do we have a winner? Feel free to post your thoughts in the box below.

Stream it tonight on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, Apple TV, etc.

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