Tag Archives: Dirty Harry

Charley Varrick (1973)

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.

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Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Starring Robert Redford’s burly mane, Jeremiah Johnson is the story of an absolutely incredible beard and the mountain man who carries it around on his face. The beard just wants to live a quiet life, moving gently in the Rocky Mountain breeze and catching a few snowflakes, but other forces dwelling in the range cause trouble for the beard. As seasons pass in the valleys below, the beard wisens to the truths of the world and becomes a broader, more understanding beard.

Sydney Pollack directed five or six films – five including 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and six if you count 1968’s The Swimmer, which Pollack eventually took over without an actual directing credit – and plenty of TV before he got to Jeremiah Johnson in 1972. Not long before production began, it was Clint Eastwood in Johnson’s role and Sam Peckinpah set to direct him, but the pair clashed and Eastwood said “Dirty Harry sounds a lot less dangerous” (paraphrased) and Redford was cast in his place. Having worked together on This Property Is Condemned in 1966, it was Redford who secured Pollack as Peckinpah’s replacement. Contrary to what one may think when watching Redford ride around on horseback for two hours Jeremiah Johnson actually cost quite a bit of money, and it was money that the studio wasn’t prepared to give out after advancing Redford a hefty salary. Pollack mortgaged his house and financed parts of the film himself, all the while strictly adhering to the budgetary and time constraints the studio laid down.

In short, you wouldn’t blame Pollack for being a bit sour after such a stressful production. But the director cited it as a great trial-by-fire learning experience, essentially because the money he was risking was his own. It probably helped that Johnson did well and remains a bit of a mountain-man classic today.

The kernel of the film, at least for me, comes when Jeremiah sits by a freshly-killed dinner with his de facto family – a wife he was all but forced to marry and a son he was all but forced to adopt. First, the irony of a man sojourning to the Rockies to live a life of quiet solitude and ending up married with a kid is a rich one. As they sit around munching rabbit or whatever Jeremiah teaches his non-English speaking wife a new word: “Yes”. He then asks her some questions about himself, the last of which is “I am a fine figure of a man, yes?” Now, this lady has no idea what in the hell this guy is talking about. She’s goaded into answering all the same, showing off her new word “yes”. Jeremiah sits back satisfied.

A definition of manhood in any form, validity apparently notwithstanding, keeps cropping up in Jeremiah Johnson. He achieves legendary status among some of the puny town-dwellers, achieves something of a nemesis status among a tribe of Crow Indians, and achieves something that begins as pity but matures into respect with two like-minded mountain men. What of himself? Does “being a man” equal “living a full life”, or is there a gap there somewhere that leaves this manly man’s man ultimately unfulfilled?

Pollack and Redford manage to pull an extremely strong narrative out of what could easily have been a semblance of shots of Jeremiah riding a horse. The beard helps. Tragically, the beard’s career went sharply downhill following Jeremiah Johnson and was hardly ever seen in Hollywood again, sinking into a drunken oblivion and leading a shattered existence that would one day serve as the basis for Leaving Las Vegas.

Straw Dogs (1971)

A quick visit to good ol’ Wikipedia will let you know that Straw Dogs came out the same year as A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and Dirty Harry, all of which were considered by the general public to be excessively violent films. Those other films undoubtedly have some rough sequences (especially the slap-happy home invasion of A Clockwork Orange), but Straw Dogs probably takes the cake for the most disturbing usage of violence in any movie of that era. Though Peckinpah had endured harsh criticisms for his portrayals of violence in his earlier films (especially The Wild Bunch), Straw Dogs would reach new heights (or new lows, depending on who you ask) with regards to what can and cannot be shown in a mainstream feature film.

Dustin Hoffman’s David and Susan George’s Amy have just started a quiet stint in the English countryside, during which David plans to finally get some work done and Amy plans to nag David and putter around looking for the cat. A few of the locals throw long and blatant gazes toward the leggy Amy, much to the subdued frustration of David. Eventually, the locals begin to test their limits toward the young couple – and eventually the gazing becomes staring, the staring becomes touching, the touching becomes harassment and the harassment becomes outright violence.

A long and complicated scene in which Amy is raped provided much of the fuel for the fire of controversy that ignited immediately upon release of Straw Dogs. There are actually two rapes back-to-back by two of the vicious locals, the first of whom is a man Amy knows and used to date. There is a sickening ambiguity to this first sequence in which Amy, initially resistant, seems to fight the event off less and less as it progresses. The promiscuity of her character throughout the film was also harshly criticized, which somehow morphed into a criticism of Peckinpah’s depiction of women in all of his films.

Regardless, it’s the second rape that many perceived to be the excessively brutal one. Amy very clearly resists and despises the occurrence, and while the second happening isn’t actually as graphic as the first Amy’s reaction is what makes the sequence so completely disturbing. This scene was immediately cut by studios prior to the film’s release and the uncut version was slapped with an X rating.

The paradox here lies in there fact that cutting the second sequence left that ambiguity of the first to sit and fester, with many audiences believing through the end of the movie that Amy had ultimately allowed the horrible event to occur. Studio muddling is a characteristic of nearly every Sam Peckinpah film, and fairly noticeable in his films from Major Dundee onwards. The reworking of Straw Dogs provided the ultimate irony not only by confusing audiences with last-minute editing, but by effectively highlighting the most disturbing portion of the film in an effort to lighten things up.

Still, whatever form you find Straw Dogs in will mark an important turning point in Peckinpah’s career. Violence on the Western front is one thing – Westerns by their nature are violent, set in seemingly lawless lands, populated by drifters with no names or backstories or ties to society. Peckinpah essentially takes these traits and plops them into a town in England to watch what happens. The local brutes – especially those played by Del Henney and Peter Vaughan – capture that Western-bandit quality of general disregard for societal structure and general desire for personal satisfaction no matter the cost.

Straw Dogs isn’t a Western. The ultimate message, though – or one interpretation of the film – may be that the setting matters little, the players involved matter little, the circumstances surrounding these particular players in this particular place matter little. Peckinpah’s mankind is prone to violence, will grow to wrest a violent tendency from the most unassuming of men, and Straw Dogs depicts this unpopular but unwavering philosophy in an important way.