Friday, May 26, 2006

THE DESERT HEART OF CHARLEY VARRICK



Had I not revisited Don Siegel’s dusty, nail-hard crime thriller Charley Varrick just the night before seeing Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times, it stands to reason that I probably would not have found myself thinking about it midway through the Taiwanese director’s film. After all, Siegel’s tale of morally ambivalent “heroes,” scabrously misanthropic villains, and the various levels of grime and corruption to be waded through and scraped off on the way toward accidentally absconding with three-quarters of a million dollars in laundered mob money would seem to have little in common with Hou’s deliberately paced, exquisitely mounted collection of three love stories, each from a different time, each told in a manner most rewardingly compared to the elliptical style of a short story on the page. And yet, as the first episode of Three Times, “A Time of Love,” began to wrap itself around me, rich in the atmospheric imagery of muggy, rain-soaked days, thick with romantic longing in every image of roadside signs and empty streets and hushed pool parlors alive only with the sounds of clacking balls, I began to marvel at how effortlessly Hou had created such a tactile, living landscape through which his two characters are allowed to move and breathe and touch and feel. That feeling led me to ponder other instances in which a director has so casually, yet so effectively rendered locations in such a manner that they almost feel like they could be breathed in through the lungs, locations reflective of the mood of a given piece and even the rocky, unforgiving landscape that makes up the characters themselves.

Thanks to that lucky proximity of having seen it 24 hours earlier, Charley Varrick leapt to mind as a prime example. When it was released in 1973 by Universal, no one seemed likely to pronounce claims of artistic integrity for what was perceived as an efficient, brutal crime programmer, no more, no less. But seen 33 years later its sturdy, intelligent design couldn’t be more apparent. As a vehicle for Walter Matthau, who would continue the dismantling of his status as strictly a comic actor begun here in films like The Laughing Policeman and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, it’s an excellent showcase for the star’s ability to project the electrical charges crackling behind his hangdog personage as Varrick attempts to wiggle out from underneath the greasy, bloody thumb of an increasingly angry and impatient crime syndicate, personified by Joe Don Baker’s grinning hit man and John Vernon’s frighteningly insinuating big boss. And because of Don Siegel’s unblinking camera eye, his sense of graphic continuity, and his insistence that the places where the chase for Charley play out are just as important for the mood that can be drawn out of them naturally, from their simple existence as landscape, as they are in conveying the ineffable sense of the existential net closing in around him, Charley Varrick’s shadow is a long one, particularly for a movie that isn’t talked about any more frequently than it is. Recent efforts like Brian Helgeland’s Payback and Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest have reached back through the smoke and wreckage of American action films, films that once crowded American movie houses and have come, as Mission: Impossible 3 most currently evidences, to a creative dead end, back to Siegel’s cold shot to the heart, where they have found a welcome place for their own curdled spirits to set up home.

On this particular viewing last week, the crucial importance of those locations to the realization of the bleak comedy and arid cynicism of the movie’s moral ambiguities hit home particularly hard. The template of the movie is set by Siegel’s attention to the details surrounding the bloody holdup that kicks the movie off, staged within the simple, brick construct of the Las Cruces, New Mexico bank, and outside that bank, along the dusty side streets of the town where children play in the unyielding sun and run for cover once the bullets start to fly. Outside that bank, the heat is palpable within the car that Charley sits and waits outside the bank, along with his partner Harman (Andy Robinson) and their getaway driver, Charley’s wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), even as they sit shaded by the trees draped around the bank’s front entrance. And in the aftermath of the getaway chase, which will result in Nadine’s death, Charley and Harman desert the car and don the gear of Charley’s legitimate business— white crop-duster overalls—and make off in Charley’s van, which bears the legend, “Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.” But they’re stopped by a state trooper on his way to assist in the already-finished chase, and Siegel uses the moment to not only create suspense as to whether Charley and Harman will be recognized, but also to allow us some breathing space after that intense chase, space that we can use to again breathe in the harsh, tactile, literally roadside ambience. I swear I could almost feel the gravel crunching under my feet and the hot air running across my face in this scene. The feel of sagebrush and dust and the foreboding and oppressiveness built into these wide-open spaces is highlighted, subtly, in this sequence, and its methods are carried through the entire film, whether the movie is “luxuriating” in the specifics of Charley’s trailer-park hideaway, a cathouse where Baker chastely spends the night as he moves in for the kill, the stuffy, under-lit interior of a photographer’s shop run by the late Sheree North, who invests an insinuating sexuality into casual betrayal, or in fascinating found-documentary glimpses of the rundown south end of South Virginia Street (specifically, the immediate area surrounding Fitzpatrick’s Casino) in Reno, Nevada, a city which seems forever tied to the seedy vitality in evidence there when this film was shot in 1972.

In Charley Varrick, the prickly, dusty landscape and its ambience of indifference is inescapably tied to the film’s crisp visual sense, its terse rhythms and its unforgiving and illuminating approach to character and storytelling. Dismissed as simple mass entertainment by even its most sympathetic reviewers in 1973, Don Siegel’s movie has emerged as a model of efficiency and expressiveness, through its influence and its vigor, after 33 years of less-talented directors thrashing at the hide, and eventually the skeletal frame, of the modern action film, where money and excess and blind demographic pursuits have yielded fewer and fewer artistic returns. Charley Varrick, surely a masterpiece of sun-bleached, Technicolor film noir, has the desert, its prickliness, its fever, its dusty insistence, in its blood and its soul, and the chill of the nighttime shadow of its influence and its reputation is only likely to grow longer, deeper, more resonant as each year passes and each new hotshot director tries to outdo the kind of terse, economical style in which its playfully perverse and formally profound pleasures are rooted.

17 comments:

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

You know I'm with you on this one. The atmosphere is as much leading player as Matthau. I've often wondered about the literal technical process of how a director creates such a tactile feeling on film, the way he/she must cut certain images, using film stocks and angles and lenses and such add-ons as music, to make you feel a strong sense of location, as Siegel makes you sense that pervasive dust. But then, why mess with the magic?
A good closeup, Dennis, on an aspect of an underappreciated film.

Benaiah said...

I went and watched X-Men 3 at a midnight showing on Thursday night and there was a little Snakes on a Plane teaser. The audience literally went wild, clapping and cheering as soon as it said "Snakes on a Plane". It was like a pep rally or when someone does a two minute keg stand. X-Men 3 was very enjoyable, and I think it was largely because I was still so pumped up from the big intro.

aaron w graham said...

The combination of Matthau’s comedic on-screen personage meeting up with such a hard-boiled director makes for my absolute favorite film from Siegel. I can’t add too much, but I did recently see a set chair from the production up on ebay.

And, Dennis, have you seen the IMDb "hit list" today? There seems to be a certain Professor gathered amongst the other links!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

TLRHB: I tried posting this a couple of days ago and it got erased somehow, but my main thought was, undoubtedly there was some method to the way Siegel and cinematographer Robert Surtees went about the business of capturing and utilizing so well those desert locations. And yet the movie avoids the feeling of being overly designed and too aggressively assembled for that effect (Imagine how the movie would look if Michael Bay directed it-- every other shot would have tumbling tumbleweeds and close-ups of gila monsters and the whooshing of dry desert winds thickly overlaid on the soundtrack.)

As far as messing with the magic, you're right-- I'm not sure I'd want to know all the details. But even if he was alive to take part in the DVD commentary movement, I wonder how much Siegel would really say about it. That imagined reticence I can imagine coming from an attitude shared by many directors of his generation to resist talking about what they do, especially if the conversation is framed in terms of artistic achievement over craftsmanship and storytelling. But also, I wonder if there wasn't a subconscious element to the way Siegel achieved what he did here, allowing the natural locations to affect him in ways he couldn't articulate even if he wanted to.

However he did it, though, I'm glad he did. This movie just gets better and better for me, and the recent passings of Matthau, and especially Sheree North and John Vernon, give it now even more of a bittersweet aftertaste.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Benaiah: I'm trying to avoid reading too much about Snakes on a Plane and the ensuing Internet phenomenon, because it is one of the movies, crazy cult status or not, I'm genuinely looking forward to this summer. But I got excited just seeing the teaser one-sheet in a theater as I was walking into Poseidon the other night, so I'm sure I would have been happy among the cheering throng for the trailer. Boy, this movie is gonna have to be among the worst ever made not to be a gigantic hit, I think, unless interest in it somehow peaks too early. And even if it is terrible, it'll probably still make a ton of dough. Regardless, I'm pretty sure I'll be there on August 18. Thanks for your thoughts on X-Men 3: The Last Stand too, especially the ones you left under the Walter Chaw piece. I'm no fan of Brett Ratner, but the series is intriguing enough for me to keep my hopes up.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

MGM: There's so much in the Siegel filmography to like, but I think, over the last few years, I've come to think of Charley Varrick as my favorite from him too. And maybe I can drop a hint to my eBay-proficient wife to keep an eye out for that chair-- my birthday is coming up quite soon!

As for that IMDb link, it's the latest surprise in a run of very exciting surprises for this blog over the past two weeks. I was at work Friday morning, and in the space of 10 minutes several responses to the Van Helsing quiz popped up. So I checked to see where they were coming from, and that's when I discovered the link. And since it was posted on the Friday before a long holiday weekend, I've had the fortune of it staying up for four days. If I start the quiz answer round-up process now, I might have it finished by the 4th of July!

Diotex said...

Dennis,

Kudos on the Wolcott link. That's how I got here. I'm anxious to see Charley Varrick now. I've always appreciated Matthau's role in "Lonely Are The Brave."

Your Bertrand Russell quote reminds me of a footnote from Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus":

"One is reminded of an emulator of Peregrinos who, upon completion of a literary work, committed suicide to draw attention to it. Attention was indeed drawn, but the work was judged to be no good."

(Pardon my memory of the quote.)

Tokyokie said...

Praise to Wolcott for providing a link to a blog encompassing two of my favorite topics. Anyway, Charley Varrick seems to have quite the reputation among the cognoscenti, even if few others seem to have seen it. I remember sitting in on a press gathering with Lee Tamahori when he was flogging Once Were Warriors in Tokyo, and somehow the two of us went off on a Charley Varrick tangent, to the complete befuddlement of everybody else present.

My impression of the atmospherics of Charley Varrick when I first viewed it during its initial release was that it was rather flat. But it's not that so much as it's very matter of fact. Siegel never was a director who went for the dramatic, wide-screen tableaux of a Leone or a Kurosawa, preferring to keep things grounded. That usually meant some gritty, noirish milieu as in The Lineup or Riot in Cell Block 11. Here, what's remarkable is how unremarkable Siegel makes everything appear, using mostly medium shots to show that life in Tres Cruces, despite the overbearing heat and remoteness, is still pretty much the Middle America idyll. (Compare it to Ollie Stone's ham-handed hysterics trying to convey the same sort of ambience in Natural Born Killers.) Siegel's cool, efficient yet effective esposition makes the violence that explodes soon after the credits all the more disturbing.

Charley Varrick is a movie I revel in showing to kids who think that Tony Scott action films kick butt, and I have yet to show it to anybody who didn't think it was great. This was Siegel's first movie after Dirty Harry, and it always puzzled me that the movie was dumped the way it was (although I understand that Walter Matthau declined to do publicity for it). But Siegel's next film, The Black Windmill, suffered an even more ignomious fate, and it, too, is a vastly underrated, taut thriller. Check it out, if you can find it.

Dave Kehr said...

A lovely piece, Dennis, but where did you get the idea that "Charley Varrick" was "dismissed as simple mass entertainment by even its most sympathetic reviewers in 1973"? The film was, in fact, an auteurist cause celebre from the first day of its release, and even won Walter Matthau a BAFTA award for best actor.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Dave: That was the impression I got from the reviews I remember reading at the time. In particular, Pauline Kael seemed to think it was pretty crude and too gleefully violent (but then I've disagreed with her on certain other Siegel films too.) But there were other reviewers, perhaps more locally oriented (I honestly can't remember their names) who seemed to reflect a similar distance from it as anything but a commercial force. However, I'm glad to know that there were critics who did champion it from the start (I bet you were one of them!)-- my problem was that I wasn't reading them at the time. And I did not know that Matthau won an award of any kind for Charley Varrick, but I'm certainly glad to find that out now. He certainly deserved it.

Thanks for taking the time to stop by, Dave. I hope it won't be the last time!

Wayne Kramer said...

I'm also a huge CHARLEY VARRICK fan and bemoan the fact that the recent DVD release was unceremoniously dumped out there in a 4X3 transfer -- this, after waiting years for the damn disc. Maybe there's a correct aspect ratio DVD available from other regions. I wonder what you think about Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES - a film that I share equal affection for and also appears to be developing a bit of a resurgence amongst noir fans. Enjoyed your insight into the film a lot.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Wayne: Under the heading "Things I'm Grateful For" for a Thanksgiving 2004 post, I wrote that I was grateful that both Charley Varrick and Altman's California Split would be out on DVD before the end of the year. So then Charley Varrick comes out in a crummy cropped transfer with absolutely no fanfare (maybe it was the studio that initially thought of it-- and continues to-- as crass commerical product, eh, Dave?), and California Split, which I discovered, thanks to critic Andy Klein and the folks at DVD Beaver, was released in a CUT version due to music rights problems. The extent of those cuts, as documented in the DVD Beaver link, are not simply a matter of overdubbing the odd lyric or changing out a song over the end credits, but are much more damaging, due to the way the songs are integrated into the film as a whole, in a fashion similar to the way Altman weaves his dialogue and visuals. So my Thanksgiving gratitude was severely tempered by some ugly realities of the home video marketplace that year.

(If you subscribe to Turner Classic Movies, a letterboxed version of Charley Varrick appears every so often, so it pays to keep an eye on their schedule, and it looks mighty fine-- surely much better than the full-frame DVD. I have TCM to thank for the copy I have on DVD. I don't know what to do about California Split, but after reading DVD Beaver I don't much feel like watching my copy, that's for sure.)

As for Night Moves, that's one that I'm really ready to revisit. It never made it to the Eastern Oregon desert on its original release, and I only ever saw it on some worn-out VHS 20-some years ago. I decided to watch it after a long night's work and was underwhelmed, but the memory of the film is so woozy and indefinite (much like my brain at the late hour when I screened it) that I can't really say that I've seen it after all. Thanks for reminding me that I need to look it up and see it again. And when I do I'll make sure to mention it here!

Wayne, did you see last year's The Ice Harvest, directed by Harold Ramis, or Brian Helgeland's Payback from a few years ago? Both films either directly or indirectly invoked Siegel and/or Charley Varrick and I would recommend them highly, if you haven't yet caught up to them.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Diotex: The Wolcott link is a very happy surprise, and I'm glad it got you here. I hope that if you read beyond this post you'll like what you see and continue to come back. I truly appreciate the company.

Like I suggested to Wayne above, that letterboxed version of Varrick that Turner Classic Movies shows occasionally is probably a much better way to see the film than the cropped DVD that's floating around out there. If you can wait, I'd advise it. And thanks in particular for the bitter laugh provided by the Camus quote. That one may find it's way onto my masthead as well.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Tokyokie: I really like what you said about your perception of Siegel's visuals being "flat," and the subsequent change in that toward a realization of their matter-of-factness. And you're absoultely right-- if they'd been overemphasized, the effect would have been garish and forced, something that the movie never is itself. As for The Black Windmill, a movie I was aware of when it came out but have only the vaguest sense of to this day, I will definitely seek it out on your recommend. If it's a Siegel film, it's gotta be worth a look.

Thanks for stopping by via Mr. Wolcott. My thanks to him for referring you, and for your taking the time to talk Don Siegel with me and everyone else. I hope you'll find further reason to read and comment again very soon!

myrnatheminx said...

I just moved out of building featured in CV in Reno. And as to the seediness of it, well, you're right. Its an aspect of the city I love in a strange way--part of what makes it unique. However, they are doing their best to change it damn it:

http://news.rgj.com/apps/pbcs.dll/
article?AID=/20060605/NEWS10/606050348/1002

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite "can't not watch" movies: I'll tune it in any time TCM runs it. Siegel's own account of it in "A Siegel Film" is long and amusing, and reveals much of the business behind the movie--Matthau had no confidence in it; Siegel wanted to call it "Last of the Independants"; most amazing of all, Clint Eastwood was set to star until a prior commitment arose, an interesting contrast to Siegel's and Eastwood's earlier "Dirty Harry", particularly in view of the first ten minutes of "Charley Varrick".
He's not much good on the mise en scene though. He's in the Southwest so he shot the Southwest. What's on screen is the art. Good thing he had that, since his acting wouldn't have paid many bills--that's Don losing the table tennis match.

Mr. Middlebrow said...

I know this is ancient history, at least in blog-time, but I happened to catch this on TCM the other night. I actually made a point of taping it on the strength of your recommendation.

You're totally on the mark about Siegel's facility with setting. I know it sounds crazy, but when Matthau walks into that gun shop, I could practically smell the place. And the film is full of visceral sense-memory moments like that.

I'm also glad that they went with Matthau over Eastwood. No knock on Clint, of course, but he was really too cool/not schmo enough for the part, IMO. I don't know if it was the casting the direction or the performance, but Matthau was brilliant. Plus, wouldn't it have been distracting for Eastwood to have his nemesis from DIRTY HARRY as his sidekick in CHARLEY VARRICK?

As we were starting to watch it, my wife made a couple comments about how the early-mid '70s were a period where her knowledge and enjoyment of movies take a sharp dip. In part because, in her words, "it was a lousy time to be a woman [in movies]." And about an hour later, Joe Don Baker proves her point with his bitch-slap/hit-man foreplay(?) on Sheree North. Which elicited the most ironic eyebrow raise from my wife.

Still, it was a real treat (for me anyway)--thanks for bringing yet another great unsung and underrated gem to my attention.