by Po Man

 “Don Siegel's making a tribute to 'the last of the independents' – as Charley Varrick is called – is a royal Hollywood joke. Siegel is one of the last of the contract directors: a hired hand with his skill for sale.”

                                                                                      – Pauline Kael, New Yorker

Once upon a time, Charley & Nadine Varrick owned and operated their own air circus; Nadine's area of expertise was wing walking, while Charley – a skilled biplane pilot – was known for a “drunk act” that culminated in a hair-raising stunt called “The Flip of Death.” After nearly getting killed during a performance of said stunt, Charley retired the act and started a crop dusting business as a way to make a living while continuing to fly. However, this self-proclaimed “Last of the Independents” couldn't compete with the bigger companies and was soon grounded. In need of steady cash flow, he and Nadine turned to crime and began sticking up small town banks with the help of two career criminals, Harman Sullivan and Al Dutcher.

During the action sequence that opens CHARLEY VARRICK (1973), Al is killed and Nadine fatally wounded while robbing a Western Fidelity branch bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico. Charley and alcoholic loose cannon Harman get away with what they believe is a score of a few thousand dollars but is actually three quarters of a million in Mafia skim money. Because Western Fidelity president Maynard Boyle and branch manager Harold Young were the only ones who knew such a large sum of cash was being held at that particular drop point, they are immediately considered the prime suspects by their shadowy employers, who have a harder time believing in coincidence than they do in inside jobs. Boyle enlists the services of pipe-smoking, Stetson-wearing hit man Molly to recover the $750,000 and tie up the loose ends. If he wants to survive and keep the loot, Charley Varrick will not only need to pull off the most complicated performance of his life...he'll have to attempt “The Flip of Death” one final time.

“Don Siegel is a director of second-rate action movies who has been elevated to some kind of cult status, first by the French and then by a school of American critics whom they influenced.”

                                                                                       – Joseph Gelmis, Newsday

The novel that inspired CHARLEY VARRICK, “The Looters” by John Reese, was first published as a hardcover in 1968 with a simple dust jacket design showing a one dollar bill next to the tag line “The exciting and violent story of a bank robbery.” Two years later, Pyramid issued a paperback that promised an “explosive new novel of the Mafia” that was “more revealing than THE GODFATHER” and was adorned with a photo of a dark-haired man in a suit displaying a ring on his pinkie finger. It's no accident that neither edition mentions airplanes, flying, or even Charley Varrick anywhere in the cover copy; he may be the titular centerpiece of the Siegel film, but Charley Varrick is little more than a catalytic supporting player in “The Looters.” An entrepreneur and pilot? Forget it – he's an ex-con working in a sign painting shop who buys a van, registers it under the fake name of Ernie Pettis, paints a bogus company logo on the side of it (“Ernie Pettis Crop Dusting Service – We're the Last of the Independents!”) and then uses it as the transfer vehicle after the robbery has been committed. Reese's story is an ensemble comprised of 23 chapters, each named after a character who is the subject of that particular chapter. Varrick only warrants three chapters in the novel, while four are dedicated to Kenneth “Stainless” Steele, the patrolman in the movie who ID's the stolen car and is shot by Nadine during the robbery. Just in case you need more proof that “The Looters” really isn't about a guy named Charley Varrick, consider this: Molly catches up with Charley three quarters of the way through the novel, tortures him with a penknife until he turns over the loot, then beats him to death with a bowling ball and runs over the corpse as he drives away...and the story goes on for another 50 pages after that.

 A movie adaptation of “The Looters” was first announced in early 1969 as a Cinema Center Films production to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich, from a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides (KISS ME DEADLY). “Soon to be a major motion picture!” appeared on some editions of the Pyramid paperback, but the project stalled once Bogdanovich signed with Sergio Leone to make DUCK, YOU SUCKER, then withdrew from that after three months and settled on Larry McMurtry's “The Last Picture Show” as his next directorial effort. By early 1972, Reese's novel had found its way to Don Siegel, who had just inked a lucrative five-year nonexclusive contract with Universal that promised the veteran director signature billing on all of the films he would make for the studio. THE LOOTERS would be the first Universal picture to feature the special credit “A Siegel Film” – in Siegel's own handwriting – before the title of the movie.

Howard Rodman, the co-writer of Siegel's MADIGAN and COOGAN'S BLUFF, turned in a script for “The Looters” that nobody was happy with, especially Universal. For all subsequent drafts of the screenplay, Siegel worked closely with Dean Riesner, his collaborator on three previous films (STRANGER ON THE RUN, COOGAN'S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY), and it was during this intense rewriting phase that “The Looters” became “The Last of the Independents” and finally “Charley Varrick.” The Mafia angle was downplayed to the point of near-nonexistence – except for a cameo by Mustang Ranch owner Joe Conforte, no one even remotely resembling an Italian-American is ever shown – a strange decision considering the popularity of Mario Puzo's “The Godfather” and the reference to it on the cover of the Pyramid paperback.

Even stranger is the emergence of Varrick as an independent flier and the abundance of animal imagery in the film, especially of the avian variety. You'd swear that in trying to avoid comparisons to one bestseller, Siegel and Riesner decided to subtly take shots at an even bigger one: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” Richard Bach's phenomenally successful fable about a seagull that rejects the scavenging ways of his fellow birds in order to reach a higher plane of existence through the joy of flying. A New Age homily on self-improvement, it was the number one fiction bestseller during the two years Siegel and Riesner were adapting “The Looters” for the screen. Additionally, the film version of JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL went into production not long after shooting had wrapped on CHARLEY VARRICK, and the two movies were released within five days of each other in October of 1973.

“...CHARLEY VARRICK is above all Don Siegel's film from start to finish....[he] has at last come into his own and is now at the peak of his powers.”

                                                                      – Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

The son of an agnostic father and a non-Orthodox Jewish mother, Siegel had been a New Testament scholar during his years at Cambridge and an atheist for the entirety of his adult life. Christian imagery appears throughout TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, THE BEGUILED and DIRTY HARRY – the three films he made immediately prior to CHARLEY VARRICK – and his cinematic interest in the subject can be traced all the way back to his directorial debut, STAR IN THE NIGHT (1945), a 20-minute modern day parable on the birth of Christ. “I respect the beliefs of others, but I don't understand them,” he admitted to author Stuart M. Kaminsky in Don Siegel: Director (Curtis Books, 1974). However, independence was something he did understand, and when you cut through everything that is Christian, Hindu, Zen Buddhist, Secular Humanist and whatever-else in “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” there's still a strong statement about individuality to be found at its core.

As for Riesner, he had directed and co-written BILL AND COO (1948), An Academy Award-winning family film starring a cast of 350 trained birds, so the idea of him constructing a covert counterpoint to Bach’s novel within the confines of a genre picture isn’t difficult to believe.  In fact, BILL AND COO was re-released to over 50 theaters in the New York City area on November 26, 1971 and went on to play kiddie matinees across the United States for much of 1972 – the time period when “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was a bestseller and Riesner and Siegel were working on their adaptation of “The Looters.”  There’s enough evidence to suggest that the resulting film, CHARLEY VARRICK, was indeed designed as a counterpoint to Bach’s book.  Instead of telling the story of a bird that breaks away from the simple existence of the flock in order to fly higher and higher and become the best bird he can be, it focuses on a flier named Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) who must fight to survive among duplicitous land animals after being forced down from the sky.

The opening shot of the movie is a zoom-out from the moon, with an exaggerated whistle heard on the soundtrack, signifying Charley’s descent to earth. Next we see the name “Charley Varrick” on the back of a jumpsuit that is engulfed in flames and melting like the wax that held together the wings of Icarus (who crashed to earth after flying too close to the sun), followed by a montage of early-morning shots as Tres Cruces comes to life (new day = rebirth), similar to the opening of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (“It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripplings of a gentle sea.”). As a car approaches the Western Fidelity Bank, Siegel’s camera ascends to the second floor, then quickly descends to street level again to reveal the car’s occupants. This camera movement occurs several times during the film, mimicking the hesitancy or failure of a bird to take flight.

A work of Native American bird art is painted on the side of Charley's van, part of the logo of his failed crop dusting business. He has the ability to fly, but can't for economic reasons and is forced to commit crimes on the ground with the help of unstable land animals like Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson). When a squad car pursuing them is destroyed, Harman yells “Creamed pig!” Later, he threatens to blow the “snout” off another cop who pulls them over to check Charley's business license. In Harman’s eyes, police = pigs. He lashes out at Charley as well, first accusing him of not having “the balls of a bull canary bird” and then calling him a “washed-up, chickenshit son-of-a-bitch” who better not try and stop his impending enjoyment of “chicks” and “beefsteak three times a day.”

Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) is also identified as a land animal, although he does “fly in from Reno” at one point. When making conversation with the young girl on the swings in front of the bank, he asks her for the name of her kitten before he inquires about her brothers and sisters. Speaking with bank manager Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey), Boyle refers to the Tres Cruces branch as a “little horseshit bank” and then states that the Mafia is going to want to know why Young “trotted” over to the vault and gave the cash to the robbers. During the same scene, Boyle admits that he'd like to switch places with the cows in a nearby field, and even expresses sexual interest in one of them: “Take a look at the big brown one out there,” he says, like it’s a bronzed beach beauty and not a Braunvieh he’s admiring, “Man, look at those jugs!

Our introduction to another land animal, Molly (Joe Don Baker), comes by way of a descending crane shot as his car pulls up in front of a generic-looking Chinese restaurant called The Imperial, which is a type of butterfly (Butterflies represent transformation). The hostess at the Imperial speaks in Chinese pidgin (pigeon) English when she greets Molly, then switches to her normal voice once he identifies himself. She takes him to the basement of the Imperial, which transforms into a small casino, where we see the mobster Honest John (Benson Fong) playing ping-pong with Murph (Don Siegel in a bit role). Ping-pong is also known as “gossima,” which is derived from the Middle English gosesomer, the best time of year for consuming cooked goose.

Molly and Honest John repossess a car – a Chrysler Imperial – from Randolph Percy (Albert Popwell), who is first seen telling a crying child, “Hush, sonny! I'm gonna get you a brand new puppy. Didn't I promise you? Didn't I?” Later, Molly plays with a couple of dogs before entering a brothel called “Bronco Pasture #1.” Inside, he insults the prostitutes in the presence of a dart-throwing cab driver, who makes a feeble attempt to defend their honor but is advised by Molly to keep throwing his “feathers” or else he'll be hospitalized. Twice we see Molly getting sexually aroused at the sight of a woman's posterior (tail), a good indication that – like an animal – he takes the female from behind during intercourse. He refuses to sleep with one of the women because she's a whore, but initiates consensual sex with the other by slapping her face, a strangely executed bit that comes across more like a mating ritual than an assault.

Tom, the handicapped proprietor of the gun shop (played by Tom Tully), has Native American bird art displayed on his wall, flanked by the trophy heads of land animals – a hint that maybe Tom was once a creature of the sky like Charley, but is now grounded as well. When Molly offers Tom “good will” in exchange for information, the store owner snarls “I've got all the good will I need” and demands cash for his knowledge – behavior that runs counter to the lessons learned and taught by Jonathan Seagull. As Charley enters Tom's Gun Shop, the camera lingers on a trash can with a sign on it: “I Eat Litter” (So do seagulls).

Charley goes to photographer Jewell Everett (Sheree North) to purchase fake passports. Her first name indicates that she's of the earth, and her last name is a variant of Evered, derived from the Old English term Eoforheard, which means “brave as a wild boar.” Her studio is on Arapohoe Street, named after the Arapoho people of the Colorado and Wyoming plains, who were nicknamed “the dog-eaters” by the Comanche, Pawnee, Wichita, Ute and other Native American tribes. In her studio there is a mobile of cartoon tigers hanging from the ceiling; an image of airborne land animals, it suggests that Jewell yearns to cut loose from earthly ties and fly away.

Similarly, Maynard Boyle’s secretary, Sybil Fort (Felicia Farr), has paintings of butterflies hanging on the walls of her apartment. Again, the butterfly represents transformation: as long as she is with Boyle, Sybil is earthbound, but once we see her with Charley she becomes capable of flight. She also aids him in his flight, both literally (Charley must fly his biplane to Reno to meet her) and figuratively (The exchange of her knowledge for “good will”).

Sybil puts Charley in touch with Boyle, who is playing pool with Molly in a saloon. With a deer head trophy on the wall behind them, both men are seen taking shots with cues, which comes from the French word queue, meaning “tail” – in other words, they're wagging their tails at each other when Sybil's telephone call reaches them. Charley tells Boyle that he has the money, and the two come to an agreement concerning the details of its return. Convinced that his troubles with the Mafia will soon be over, Boyle sits down at a piano and begins playing “Invention No. 4 in D Minor,” a contrapuntal piece written by Johann Sebastian Bach as an exercise in second-species counterpoint for his students. Like J.S. Bach, (J)onathan (S)eagull – as written by Richard Bach (no relation) – acquired knowledge, achieved greatness, and returned to his flock as an educator.

Charley comes out on top at the end. As he drives away, the camera begins to ascend – but as soon as his car disappears from view, the music changes and the camera suddenly dips back to earth and veers over to the burning “Charley Varrick” jumpsuit we saw at the beginning of the film. The name no longer exists, but the man himself has been reborn. It's not the destruction of Icarus' wings – it's Phoenix rising from the ashes.

“CHARLEY VARRICK is a good one. It was directed by Don Siegel, a great favorite of the auteur critics, and it proves that there's nothing wrong with an auteur director that a good script can't cure.”

– Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic

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