The Last Run (Richard Fleischer, 1971) & Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973)
After the stunningly bold experimentation displayed by the first three films out the gate in the online neo-noir course I’m currently taking (covering films from 1966-86), namely Seconds, Point Blank and Klute, these next up early 70’s efforts made by grizzled Hollywood vets in the latter parts of their careers, with both films fronted by old school tough guys playing small-time crooks (well, in the case of the simmering George C. Scott in The Last Run, definitely a legit scary tough guy, while in the case of hang-dog faced Walter Matthau in Charley Varrick more like a wannabe tough guy) on the run, in male-centric crime narratives told in rather straightforward styles, both with arguably (okay, I might be slightly forgiving when I say arguably in the case of “Varrick”) misogynistic tendencies, felt more like looking back at relics from a bygone cinematic tradition, rather than the leaping forward the first three represented.
George C. Scott
For a film I’ve read was plagued by creative differences (leading to original director John Huston bolting from the film after lots of crazy fighting with the infamously menacing Scott, to be replaced by Richard Fleischer, an only slightly lesser version of perhaps the greatest of all non-auteur genre-jumping directors in Robert Wise, with a ton of great journeyman credits under his name and known for being able to step in and make something presentable out of a mess), The Last Run might be a familiar kind of film, with little ambition to wow with innovation, yet it’s a tale told with conviction, with some really wonderful dialogue, delivered with assurance by actors like Scott and then wife Colleen Dewhurst (unconvincing accent and all), playing Scott’s small-town go-to prostitute (the early scene where their cleverly written exchange has Scott revealing through misdirected dialogue how his last wife had left him for another man is great stuff). Scott deliberately downplays his world-weary role, yet punctuates his performance with a certain intriguing unpredictability (usually in his responses to Musante’s brash nutso character) that is genuinely surprising at moments.
The attempt at a tragic note in the film’s conclusion might not ring with the resonance it would like to (“He was already dead years ago”), and a few moments in the chase sequences lack a bit of oomph (especially considering the mind-blowing chase sequences going on in not only the American films of the day, like The French Connection, but in the umpteen Italian crime film counterparts of the time), but overall The Last Run was a real discovery for me (and in definite need of some reappraisal!).
Charley Varrick, on the other hand… not quite the success. Telling the story of a small town bank robbery gone wrong, with small time professional Varrick (Matthau) and his gang mistakenly stealing a wad of hidden cash they had no idea was being laundered through the bank leaving them in the surprise position of being hunted not just by the police, but the far-less forgiving mob, is handled with a surprisingly unsure hand, never finding a footing in tone (I mean, is the first time we see Matthau in his silly disguise supposed to be funny? Perhaps, but it’s immediately neutered by the straightforwardly presented brutal shooting by Varrick’s wife of the two cops who stumble upon the scene mid-robbery. Are we supposed to actual believe later in the film that the mob’s secretary is so immediately smitten with the slovenly Varrick that she can’t help but get it on with him? I mean… really? The guy whose most convincing role up to now was probably as Oscar Madison – the sloppy one in The Odd Couple –with his single act of seduction towards the young lady being to display his ability to kick down her door, which is how they meet?).
I’m not saying “Varrick” isn’t watchable. It is. It just doesn’t have the depth and skill to be a particularly captivating crime thriller. It’s shot like a bad television movie of the time, with decent actors like Joe Don Baker, as the psychopathic hitman Molly, and Andrew Robinson, as Varrick’s younger irresponsible partner, aren’t given much to lift their characters up and are left floundering.
Matthau comes across half-hearted, as if unsure whether he should be playing the part in an ironic send-up style, or dead straight (something I’m not sure director Siegel was sure of either). Apparently, Clint Eastwood was originally cast to play Varrick and, while just about the entirety of the others in my neo-noir class vehemently disagreed, I’d argue the film had a much better chance of being a good film with Eastwood as front man… at least we would have known what kind of film we were watching (and the young secretary jumping his bones upon seeing a display of his physical prowess coming through the door would have made more sense).
Joe Don Baker
Well, I’m happy to have seen “Varrick”, if just to continue checking off boxes in director Don Siegel’s oeuvre, it’s by far the least of the five films I’ve watched as part of the course. Kind of amazing to consider that the film Siegel made previously was the brilliant piece of Eastwood-led reactionary cinema Dirty Harry; talk about Siegel having a clear vison, including helping create unforgettable performances – hell, just look at what Andrew Robinson as the sleazy psycho Scorpio delivers in that film compared to in “Varrick”! Who knows, perhaps what was missing from “Varrick” was a properly riled up Siegel, his muse fed in “Harry” by the theme of all those damn liberals he imagined destroying the country!
The Last Run, on the other hand, turned out a small unassuming gem well worth languishing over and appreciating. I enjoyed its vibe so much, in fact, I watched it two nights in a row. Charley Varrick? Once was enough.