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.