For Labor Day, I treated myself to a video. I made my way over the last remaining video store in town and picked up Charley Varrick. It’s interesting that this video store is the one that all these years was the only one that stocked classic, cult, and psychotronic films. Funny that! But anyway, I remember first seeing it in 1995 on late night television and being very excited that it contained the line A Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch. I’m pretty sure it is where Quentin Tarantino got the line for Pulp Fiction.
So I was excited to see it again. And it is a fine film. Yes, there are problems. It was made in 1973, and the sexism is striking. The soundtrack makes the film sound like a generic cop show from two years later. It also tries too hard to humanize the main character by having him twice kiss his dead wife and then look at her picture mournfully. Just the same, Walter Matthau does a great job of projecting his loss right up to the point where there is the semi-obligatory moment at the end of second act where he has sex with the executive secretary and girlfriend of the bad guy.
Joe Don Baker Harms Charley Varrick
But what most hurts Charley Varrick is Joe Don Baker. Throughout the film, he smokes a pipe. This is an old director’s trick. “The guy can’t act?! Well give him a prop to play with!” Baker plays the “tough” guy. He finds things amusing, except when he doesn’t. He “don’t sleep with whores”; but he does apparently beat up women so they will sleep with him. Like I said: the film is sexist — often in a very creepy way. But Baker’s performance from scene to scene could easily be for totally different movies.
There is a key moment in the film where Joe Don Baker is torturing Andrew Robinson. It’s really amazing because it’s just the two of them. Robinson is a fine actor. He’s fully engaged with the role. And there’s Joe Don Baker who floats through the scene, because — What the hell?! — there’s blood and stunts. Who’s going to notice? And Baker has no clue who his character is anyway. And given his other work, it’s hard to believe Baker would be able to do anything with a well-formed character anyway.
There Is a Character There
Don’t get me wrong: I understand what the screenwriters were going for. The character needs to be cocky to set up the end. But it it isn’t difficult to establish cockiness. And Joe Don Baker doesn’t establish cockiness so much as emptiness. There is nothing under the surface. Normally, I blame directors for bad cinematic acting. But in this case, I suspect that Baker was just part of the deal. (I don’t know if Baker was on-board before Walking Tall became a hit.) Almost no directors can simply fire a “star.” And I suspect that the great Don Siegel had lots on his mind.
Still, Joe Don Baker does almost ruin the film. I really want to re-cut Charley Varrick. I suspect that you could cut most of his character’s scenes out of the film. After all, early on, it is established that he is a Badass™. There’s no need to establish him as a man of principle or a man that any woman outside a mental ward would find attractive. Just establish that he’s a force to be reckoned with by having him punch the black guy, then have him on the trail of Varrick, and then (Thank you, Jesus!) show him blown up.
I think ultimately, that’s all we can ask of any action film: that it show Joe Don Baker being blown up.