The Mafia doesn't believe in coincidence; which makes it bad luck if your bank is robbed while you're holding three quarters of a million dollars for them. The coincidence is a crop duster who was already down on his luck and whose name gives the title to the 1973 film: Charley Varrick
. A Don Siegel movie, it mostly lacks the dumb bullshit that pervades some of his more famous crime films like Madigan
and Dirty Harry
. Instead it's a satisfying fantasy about an average man outsmarting the rich and powerful.
A great deal of the film's strength comes from its unlikely star--although it was written for Clint Eastwood, it's Walter Matthau who takes the role of Charley Varrick. When he brings the money back to his trailer home along with his rash young accomplice, Harman (Andy Robinson), it doesn't seem like there's any hope of escape for the slightly hunched, frowning old Charley when he realises the extraordinary amount of cash they've taken from a small town bank can only indicate it's mob money. Two of their accomplices were killed by local law enforcement already, one of them Charley's wife, Nadine (Jacqueline Scott). If he'd been played by Clint Eastwood or Richard Widmark we'd already be sighting his comeback a mile away but while Matthau has a gleam of intellect always in his eye that makes it credible we have no real guarantee he's got the moxy to get out of this.
The villains are well cast, too, particularly John Vernon as the owner of the bank. A scene where he coolly explains to the branch manager, Young (Woodrow Parfey), in charge of the bank that'd been robbed that, while he, Vernon, knows Young had nothing to do with the stolen money, the mob might not agree. Vernon frames the interrogation entirely as concern for his friend and yet there's something so steely and cold in Vernon's delivery that the tension is high for the entire scene.
Joe Don Baker plays Molly, a repulsive hitman on Charley's trail. Sure, every time he walked on screen I impulsively thought, "Mitchell!" or, "Oh, Mitchell, what have you gotten into now?" But he sells the sliminess when he grins like an oaf while sucker punching one hapless individual after another. You want this guy to get what's coming to him.
I'm generally annoyed by Siegel's treatment of women in his films. This movie has no real female character and the few who make brief appearances are at least not the abrasive caricatures that appear in Siegel's other crime films. I was only slightly amused by the inexplicable shot of a teenage girl in a tiny shirt mowing a lawn in the opening credits.
The Wikipedia entry says audiences were confused by the film--as was, apparently, Walter Matthau--which I find difficult to believe. It's not a complicated film at all. Charley accidentally takes mob money, the mob wants to find it and possibly kill him, and Charley comes up with clever ideas to stop these things happening. Why's that confusing? I suspect audiences were actually put off by the lack of a "good guy". At the end of the day, Charley is still a bank robber, partially responsible for the deaths of some innocent people at the beginning of the film, yet he's the hero. Such moral ambiguity wasn't quite popular yet for action movie audiences.