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Charley Varrick (1973) Review

To me, Walter Matthau represents unequivocal partnership with the late Jack Lemmon. A host of aggressively funny feature films together has left a strong impression on myself, and if anything introduced me to their work as standalone actors. While Lemmon was always a bit of a spotlight stealer when partaking in a joint Matthau effort (The Odd Couple and The Front Page), he could clearly hold his own in films that relied solely on him. I was wondering if Matthau could do the same, and outside of a supporting role in Fail Safe, my viewing of Charley Varrick marked the first time I had seen him as a lone wolf in a leading position.

He’s certainly leading man material, that much is clear. The ability to flick that switch between comedy and drama is so consequential throughout this tightly wound thriller. It’s nice to see Matthau completely steal the show here, every scene with him is an absolute blast to behold. A certainly unique blend of thrilling build-up and strong performances lead to a consistently enjoyable movie that pulls a rather generic storyline off in stylish fashion. Matthau takes these scenes in his stride, easily adapting to a genre I wouldn’t have expected him to migrate to.

His titular role sees him spar well with a handful of underwhelming cast members. The scenes that go without Varrick are ultimately unrewarding, generic performances from faces I didn’t recognise, those same faces making fleeting appearances throughout before coming to a begrudgingly mediocre finale. The finale is baffling, a crop duster flying around a scrapyard while a man in a cowboy hat gives chase. It’s weird, but in the context of the film, it amazes me that they can somewhat get away with such a brash and sudden move from thrilling reality to a peculiar end.

Directed by the man that brought us Dirty Harry, Don Siegel, it should be no surprise that the cinematography and camera placements have all the right charms to get us through a comfortably paced film. At times feeling a bit pedestrian, and wholly reliant on the strong lead performance, Charley Varrick is salvaged from mediocrity. In fact, pairing Siegel and Matthau up together is such a hit, I found myself completely engrossed in a film that should by all means be nothing better than a forgettable albeit good time.

With that said then, it’s amazing how far you can go when relying on one leading performance and steady direction from a man with experience in the thriller genre. Charley Varrick is a marvellous display of conventional escapades that would live on in the genre for decades to come, but thanks to the engaging lead role from Matthau, Charley Varrick is elevated to a level most films in the genre can only dream of reaching.

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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