This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Charley Varrick. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Charley Varrick is one lucky guy. Odd, maybe, to associate “luck” with a man who botches a robbery and gets his wife killed, and odder still once he discovers that the money he does get away with belongs to the ruthless Mafia. Over the course of Charley Varrick poor Charley buries his wife, runs from the police, runs from the Mafia, loses his partner, loses his house, loses his plane, and spends a heck of a lot of time contending with the incompetence of others. Traditionally we call the person in this string of situations “unlucky.”
Maybe we’re looking for luck because Varrick has Walter Matthau as its hero instead of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson or Gene Hackman, actors who led the ‘70s crime flicks Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and The French Connection and to whose characters Charley himself owes a great deal. These are the typical hardnosed and steely-eyed actors we might expect in Charley’s pulpy shoes. But Matthau, roundnosed and puppydog-eyed, was at the time more known for comedies and collaborations with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. Indeed Varrick marked a bit of a career detour for Matthau, who would continue to seek crime dramas like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the excellent Laughing Policeman throughout the mid-‘70s. In all of these gritty movies Matthau is lovable in spite of his occasional criminality, amusingly standoffish, honorable in an amongst-thieves sort of way.
And in Varrick he’s also lucky. Charley himself would staunchly disagree: he’s the “Last of the Independents” according to his crop-dusting jumpsuit, a self-made man who relies on his intelligence and determination rather than good fortune. It’s clear that he’s the man with the plan in the heist crew, the one who’s actually spent time to consider contingencies and consequences. The gang is an autonomy and Charley is the home rule. Being lucky might negate this self-proclaimed independence. Don Siegel, Varrick‘s director, already breached this topic two years earlier in Dirty Harry when he had Clint Eastwood’s decidedly independent hero utter his most famous line: “You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
There’s one scene in which Charley is trying to get in touch with a mafioso in order to plead his case. To do so he attains the name of the mobster’s secretary, sends her roses, waits outside the building until he sees a woman carrying the flowers in order to identify her, and then follows her home and forces her to put him in touch with her boss. A modern filmgoer might wonder if there’s an easier way for Charley to get what he wants, shaking his or her head at the very mid-’70s development of having Charley sleep with the secretary when all is said and done. Regardless, the fact remains that so much of this plan relies on luck, despite the scene’s emphasis on Charley’s meticulous plotting and scheming. The film’s climax features the toppling of similarly sequential dominoes, each falling in Charley’s favor and allowing him to get the best of both the mafioso and the contracted assassin on his tail.
On second thought, it’s an obsession with luck that brought those villains into the climactic trap in the first place. While Charley never doubts that ill fortune brought his gang to this particular bank – “We lucked out!” exclaims his partner, to which Charley laments “More like crapped out” – the Mafia can only see the other side of the coin. This robber is the luckiest robber in the world, hitting a drop bank on the one day it’s full of dirty money. A few of the mobsters posit that no one could be that lucky: it had to be an inside job. Such do both luck and self-made independence become almost entirely a matter of perspective.
While the ‘70s was arguably the greatest era for American crime drama, the genre as it exists today certainly still echoes many of the same sentiments. It’s seeped into television, of course, with Breaking Bad being the best example of a criminal protagonist ostensibly getting by on nothing but grit and ingenuity. But even the cancer-ridden Walter White enjoys his fair share of dumb luck, finding a set of car keys in the overhead sun visor with more ease than John Connor in Terminator. It doesn’t necessarily diminish Walter White’s tenacity when the universe works in his favor, and the same is true of Charley Varrick. Still, in the final shot of Charley Varrick, Charley’s also behind the wheel of the vehicle that could be his getaway car. He turns the key once, twice…nothing. Eventually the engine roars to life. The end result is the same, essentially, whether the car starts or not: against all odds, Charley rides off into the sunset. If dumb luck wasn’t on his side, though, he just might have to walk.