For much of his adult life, Walter Matthau looked like a weathered chew-toy version of Ronald Reagan, not like anyone's idea of an action hero. But for a three-movie run of early-'70s crime thrillers, he made a case for himself as one of the all-time great movie tough guys, a calm and sardonic everyman outwitting masterminds and psychopaths for no other reason than that he had to. (For our purposes, any movie from the 1970s with a car chase counts as an action movie.) He started that run with 1973's The Laughing Detective and ended it with 1974's all-time classic The Taking of Pelham 123. But neither of those movies is streaming on Netflix. Whereas Charley Varrick, the absolutely badass Don Siegel picture slotted right in between those two, is. So that's what we'll talk about today. (Side note: Two years after finishing that run, Matthau played Coach Buttermaker in The Bad News Bears. File your Hall of Fame ballots accordingly.)
In Charley Varrick, Matthau is the title character, a former stunt pilot turned cropduster who'd turned to robbing small-town banks when, I guess, the big cropdusting corporations pushed him to the edge of bankruptcy. The movie opens with a heist, and it's one of those quintessentially '70s scenes where the bucolic calm of a small town (Tres Cruces, New Mexico, in this case) is shattered by a sudden burst of violence. Varrick is not exactly a brilliant thief, and the heist ends with two cops and two robbers, including Varrick's wife, dead. He's not exactly a sympathetic character at the outset, but that changes when we see how he operates. We see him kissing her goodbye as his remaining dangerous hick partner tells him to hurry up, and then we see him setting the getaway car on fire before her body is even cold. With a couple of quick, economical storytelling touches, Siegel establishes Varrick as someone who has known great pain, but who is always ready to keep moving, just to survive. And Matthau underplays the whole thing, letting heartbreak just crease his face, but muttering orders at his partner minutes later.
The movie does have one guy who fits the standard action-hero mode: swaggering hunk of meat Joe Don Baker, who earned action-hero immortality that same year as Sherriff Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall. Here, he plays a peacocking, cowboy-hatted good ol' boy mob enforcer inexplicably named Molly. (When rappers started using "Molly" as ecstasy slang a couple of years ago, I kept wondering how Baker's character would feel about it. Not good, I'm guessing.) Varrick's big problem: The small-town bank he hit happened to be a mafia drop spot, and it happened to have a ton of ill-gotten cash that exact day. So besides the police and his own greedy partner, Varrick has to worry about this big lug finding him and horribly murdering him, keeping the same self-satisfied smirk on his face the whole time.
The movie is full of vivid character actors. Andrew Robinson, who'd played the sadistic, gibbering Scorpio Killer in Siegel's Dirty Harry two years earlier, plays Varrick's partner, bringing that same intense unease to a character whose dumb small-time greed animates all his decisions. John Vernon, who would later play the oily Dean Wormer in Animal House, plays an oily mob functionary. This was an era in American pop culture where I guess people were just figuring out what the mafia was, so there's no sense that this is an Italian-American organization with a complex internal structure—they're just mysterious men in suits who will kill you. And because much of the organization suspects that Varrick's robbery is an inside job, we get all these great scenes of character actors threatening to do horrible things to each other. When he wrote Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino lifted Marcellus Wallace's "go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch" line from Charley Varrick word for word. It's that kind of movie.
But Baker, as Molly, leaves a deeper impression than any of the other underlings. He hums to himself, puffs a wooden pipe, pilots a massive '70s shit-kicker car, and threatens anyone who challenges him in the slightest. In the movie's queasiest scene, he asks a woman for a beer, backhands her across the face when she gives it to him, and then calmly leads her to the bedroom. He flexes casual racism, offends hookers by refusing to fuck them, and never seems happier than when he's torturing some poor idiot. (Best line: "Sonny boy, you and I are just not communicating.") And when the movie turns into a two-man duel between him and Varrick, you want to see him get his.
As for Matthau, you get to see him make dumb mistakes and then slowly put together grand plans to get out of them. He's obviously no match for Baker physically, so he has to be slick. And when he springs his whole trap, it makes for one of the most satisfying movie climaxes I've seen in a long time. Charley Varrick counts as an action movie because it has shootouts and chases and fistfights, but its hero is a regular guy, placed in an extraordinary circumstance, who has to use guts and cunning to find his way out. It's the John McClane archetype, just a decade and a half early.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.