Last of the Independents: A Roundtable on “Charley Varrick” with Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

By Christoph Huber

Don Siegel’s superior crime picture Charley Varrick (1973) was supposed to be called Last of the Independents, but that title was nixed by Universal honcho Lew Wasserman. This probably gives even more credence to the subversive, stick-it-to-the-system notion nestled inside this tale of a crop-duster pilot who has resorted to small-scale robbery for a living because he can no longer compete against the capitalist monopoly in his legal job. 

The film begins with the heist of a backwater bank, in which Varrick (Walter Matthau) loses two accomplices—including his wife (Jacqueline Scott)—but makes an unexpectedly big haul. When the amount is covered up in official reports, Varrick realizes that he and his dimwitted surviving partner (Andy Robinson) must have unknowingly made off with laundered mafia money, and has to rely on his wits to take on the syndicate, whose delegates—one businesslike (John Vernon), one murderously criminal (Joe Don Baker)—soon get on his trail.

Charley Varrick was originally written for Clint Eastwood, who had just had a career-defining success with the Siegel-helmed Dirty Harry (1971), but the star declined, allegedly because he found no redeeming features in the title character. (Siegel surely relished his riposte of inserting an Eastwood quip directed at Baker.) Matthau wasn’t too happy with the script either—the director outlines their arguments, with his usual dry candour, in the posthumously published autobiography A Siegel Film—and Siegel faults the actor’s public complaints for the studio’s lack of interest in the film. Despite good critical notices, it was considered a disappointment at the box office, although ironically Matthau won a BAFTA for his performance in a film he claimed he did not understand. In retrospect, however, Charley Varrick has come to be seen as not only a career highlight for Matthau, Siegel, and many other participants in the film, but also as one of the best Hollywood pictures of its era—not least for its distinctive spin on such classic themes as the romantic notion embodied in its original title. 

That “Last of the Independents” designation is still visible above the name “Charley Varrick” in the unusual title credits that bracket the film: a close-up of the lettering on Varrick’s pilot jumpsuit, which is in the process of going up in flames. This design was also long in the running as a motif for one of the pricelessly rare Cinema Scope–branded T-shirts, but in the end it never happened. So, I vowed that my contribution for the (perhaps) final print issue of this publication would be a piece on Charley Varrick, a film that occupies a special place in my cinephilic evolution and which I looked forward to another encounter with after roughly 20 years. 

This time out, however, I felt that my usual essayistic approach would yield less interesting results than incorporating actual filmmakers’ point of view. To get this broader perspective, I enlisted two of my best friends (and ardent Siegel supporters)—the Austrian writer-director combo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, whose newest film The Devil’s Bath will soon be unveiled—to discuss in depth the many pleasures of Charley Varrick. So, after enjoying a rewatch (or, in Veronika’s case, a first viewing) that was accompanied by much laughter and many exclamations of delight, we instantly sat down with a bottle of wine to discuss what we had just seen.

Christoph Huber: We talk about Charley Varrick in honour of the Cinema Scope t-shirt that never got made: Last of the Independents. But also because it’s a film that means a lot to me ever since I saw it many times on TV in my youth, when it was one of the films that contributed to me discovering Don Siegel as an auteur—really one of the first Hollywood directors that stood out for me—as well as Walter Matthau. Clearly, this kind of crime thriller was not written for him, but for Clint Eastwood. However, Matthau being the lead—and what he is doing here as an actor—forms a big part of the film’s slightly contrarian allure. 

That brings us back to the Last of the Independents tagline. Charley Varrick, the protagonist, used to be a stunt flyer, then a crop-duster pilot, but he’s being driven out of business by the forces of monopoly enterprise—“The Combine,” as they call it in the movie, which underscores the similarities of the capitalist system and organized crime. It is interesting that an old studio professional like Don Siegel made this movie at the beginning of the ’70s, when the younger generations of New Hollywood (let alone non-Hollywood directors) might have considered themselves “the independents” trying to take over the system. Siegel shows quite a different perspective on what it means to fight for independence. Then, there is also something unusual in the way the film works with its provincial setting: essentially, it’s a rural noir, but taking place mostly in broad daylight, with only two big action set pieces that basically bracket the movie. Still, it remains highly suspenseful throughout, but it achieves this tension mostly through character work. And even its characters are unusual, bordering on odd.

Severin Fiala: There is also a Hitchcock aspect to this, like North by Northwest (1959)—another sunlight noir, but one with even less action.

Huber: And there’s crop-dusting in both. Charley Varrick is based on The Looters by John Reese, a novel I’ve never read, so I guess one would have to look there first to find whether these are conscious references. Generally, though, I don’t see Siegel as a particularly Hitchcockian filmmaker; even the way he orchestrates suspense is very different. His direction is classical, but here he is much more interested in the characters and their idiosyncrasies.

Fiala: That makes me think of the scene where the detectives are storming Charley’s trailer, and the way they run. With their heavy bulletproof vests, this feels ridiculous.

Veronika Franz: It looks totally absurd!

Fiala: Yes, and that is what really interests Siegel: these quirky touches that make people and situations different and unique.

Huber: But he doesn’t handle it just on a superficial level. The cops in their vests look ridiculous at that moment, but they are no idiots. Siegel treats things unlike, say, the Coens, who sometimes tread similar territory. But they always feel the need to underline the quirkiness, while Siegel does the opposite, thankfully.

Franz: Well, Marjorie Bennett’s hilarious trailer-park mama is quite over the top…

Huber: But she’s comic relief in a way that stands apart, and she’s providing a comedic view on the proceedings. And she might almost be the trailer park’s mascot—she perfectly fits into the environment.

Franz: Which is characteristic of the locations that they have found. That is one of the biggest assets of the film: places that are memorable and believable. Who else would have come up with that scene at the cow fence, where John Vernon’s mafia middleman talks to Woodrow Parfrey’s poor bank manager…

Huber: Funny enough, Siegel singles that scene out in his autobiography as one of the most difficult shots he ever made, even though it is just two people walking and talking. He loved the location and wanted a certain light, but it took them several attempts over a few days to get it so that the shadow fell over the countryside just as he wanted, and they still could finish the dialogue before they ran out of sunlight.

Franz: He ends up with an over-the-shoulder angle that is not something you’d normally do, but it looks stunning.

Fiala: That brings me back to Hitchcock: you have to know how to set up a shot like this and get the timing of everything in it right.

Huber: But overall Siegel’s laconic approach is very different from Hitchcock, even if they both may aim for maximum efficiency.

Franz: Yes! There is something magic about this laconicism. It’s there right from the beginning. The slow opening, with these shots of a rural idyll under the credits. Children playing. Then, this couple arrives—Varrick and his wife—taking their time looking around, talking. And then, BANG! All of a sudden the bank robbery is underway. I’m not much for jump scares, but the way Siegel changes from one register of time into another here is really impressive.

Huber: I had completely forgotten that the set-up for the robbery is so funny already, almost a parody, with Matthau’s disguise. The thick glasses…

Franz: And the wart! And his leg in plaster! Who would rob a bank with a plaster cast? But Siegel makes it all work. The craftsmanship is so outstanding throughout—we needn’t really discuss this, since there are so many instances and it’s so obvious. But just consider the colour of the villain’s car in the action scene at the junk yard near the end: if it wasn’t red, you might not even notice he’s already speeding towards Varrick’s biplane. Siegel seems to know exactly what the audience will notice, and he frames accordingly. Some shots might seem too close, but that really is necessary so that certain details won’t be lost on the audience.

Fiala: Like the picture of John Vernon on the bedside table, when Varrick is in bed with his secretary (Felicia Farr). It is conspicuously oversized, but that’s why it stands out as a clue to the audience—and additionally, it makes it funny.

Huber: Film is tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot.

Fiala: As far as laconic direction goes, you probably can’t beat the scene where they are throwing away the guns after the robbery getaway. Varrick is standing on this small bridge and slowly lets one gun fall into the water, then the next, taking his time. When you think he’s finished, he takes the gun of his partner and lets it drop in, then he thinks of another in the glove compartment… all in that same slow, steady rhythm.

Franz: The slowness gives it a realistic feel, the methodical aspect of it. And the place. I love how insignificant it looks, which is also really funny: the tiniest bridge imaginable. And the way he just lets go of the guns, which you don’t even see hit the water. It’s the opposite of the dramatic fashion in which guns are usually thrown away in films.

Fiala: That realistic aspect even extends to the quirky details. There is also deft stylization, but it’s perfectly balanced—for every detail Siegel purposefully stresses, he employs understatement elsewhere. To get back to the Coens comparison, they make sure to let you know how deft their handling is all the time. But Siegel lets you notice casually, like the funny details in many of the locations, and they seem all the more real for it.

Huber: During the heist, one of the robbers swings through the teller’s window over the bank counter, then takes out a handkerchief and wipes away the prints. This is one such detail that feels both utterly convincing and a bit absurd, on reflection. Why didn’t they wear gloves in the first place? It’s one of these ideas that are exaggerated, but only so much that you still buy it in that moment. It adds to the excitement of the scene and makes it special.

Fiala: And he might have looked suspicious standing outside the bank with his gloves on.

Franz: I saw the film for the first time today, and thus was really startled by the scene of his wife waiting outside in the car while they go to rob the bank. When the policemen arrive and start talking to her, I was really wondering what she would do next. There’s a range of possibilities, but I really would not have expected her to just shoot the cops in cold blood.

Huber: And there’s this outstanding brief countershot of a bullet hole in the car door—she must have been hit by the cop’s bullet! Or was she? Because she remains remarkably cool as they drive towards escape after the robbery, but soon it becomes clear she is not well at all. She just was determined enough that they would make it out.

Franz: I must say that all the women in the film—Varrick’s wife, the passport forger (Sheree North), the mafia associate’s secretary, even the trailer-park lady—are incredibly cool. They’re all fearless and strong.

Fiala: Of course, that’s part of a certain tradition. Hawks…

Huber: Walsh, Wellman. That type of classical Hollywood director who is automatically associated with male genres, but almost always have stronger women.

Franz: But here the women are just supporting characters. They are not central to the plot, but still have a power that sets them apart.

Huber: Yet there’s the scene where Joe Don Baker’s mafia killer arrives at the forger’s place and slaps her as a kind of foreplay. She has to submit because she’s part of the syndicate and he’s higher up in its power structure.

Franz: But she gives him a knowing smile! You probably couldn’t do a scene like that anymore, but it feels almost like a BDSM moment, some kind of roleplay. Clearly she consents, and then she closes the door—locking out the camera and the audience…

Fiala: At first glance you think he’s in control, but is he really? It’s a good example of how the film is constantly turning clichés on their head.

Franz: Let me get back to the beginning, which is actually quite tough, when Varrick’s wife takes the bullet and dies in the car. It’s quite something. Then Varrick starts pouring powder over her dead body to blow up the car and eliminate all traces. But while he’s doing it, he kisses her. And he takes the wedding ring off her finger and puts it on his own. Again, this fascinating balance of conflicting emotions.

Fiala: He has to remove the ring so they can’t identify her.

Franz: Yes, but if it were just about that he could just put it in his pocket. The gesture implies it clearly means something to him. The ring then disappears until the very end, when you spot it on the dead body of Varrick’s partner in crime lying in the trunk, so it will provide a false lead. But there is more to this than ingenious criminal planning: Varrick really is sorry that she’s dead. There are the songs his partner plays on the harmonica in her memory, after saying: “She was a good driver.” The character dies early, but she’s not forgotten. 

When we write our films, we often have difficulties with this subject: how do you say goodbye to a character? How can you show ambivalence? On the other hand, Varrick seems a cool customer, making preparations while the viewer may not even be sure she’s really dead yet. Admittedly, he lifts her eyelids to be sure—but I wasn’t! And he’s already pouring the powder.

Fiala: C’mon, it’s Walter Matthau! He wouldn’t do something like that. And that’s why it’s so great he’s the lead…

Huber: And not Eastwood, who would do all this really coolly.

Franz: Because there is always something slightly clumsy with Matthau.

Huber: Precisely because he’s not a Superman action type is why the film’s “Last of the Independents” theme resonates. An action man like Eastwood or Bronson in the lead would take the sting out of Varrick’s victory over the combine. But no, it’s our Uncle Matthau who outwits them—one of us, and yet smart enough to beat the system. Back then you might have believed that dream, because the encroachment of capitalism was felt differently, wasn’t as suffocating.

Fiala: That’s why you love him: it’s Uncle Matthau. Great casting.

Huber: Another thing about your observation that Varrick’s wife is not forgotten. Later, we see memorabilia of the Varricks’ flying career, including a poster announcing their most dangerous plane stunt. It is exactly what he will perform at the end to outwit Baker’s mafia henchman, just before the scene with the car trunk. It really demonstrates how cleverly constructed the film is, without drawing particular attention to itself.

Franz: This also comes back to understanding what the viewer will accept. We often discuss this for our movies, and then Severin will argue we have to add something so the audience will notice what we’re getting at—like taking a picture off the wall and putting it back, which happens at one point in Charley Varrick. It is an example of how you guide your audience with absolute perfection.

Fiala: And still, Siegel doesn’t budge an inch in his laconicism. And also gets away with the exaggeration and whimsical touches.

Huber: It works because everything is so grounded.

Fiala: Yes, and that’s why the humour works so well throughout. Never nudging you or being ha-ha funny is what makes it really funny.

Huber: We all agree that the script seems exemplary, yet it’s worth bringing up a dissenting opinion—Matthau’s! Allow me to quote from Siegel’s autobiography: 

“Walter Matthau was set to star and he didn’t like the script. He sent me a cassette of his criticisms the moment he finished reading it: ‘I mean, you start off with a very tough premise to swallow at the very beginning. I think there should be a device that explains what is happening. Since I have read it three times and am of slightly better than average intelligence—120 IQ—I still don’t understand what’s going on. Well, I really do understand what’s going on, but only because it was explained to me. There is no way to explain to people sitting in the theatre what they are seeing. So why don’t we explain it? Why don’t we have a device? For example, you could show at the beginning of the picture a man telling this story to a story editor in a motion picture company about what actually happened to him many years ago. That would be Charley Varrick, perhaps ten years after the picture starts, or maybe twenty…’” 

As he rants on, Matthau even proposes that Varrick might tell his story from a psychiatrist’s couch in Argentina!

Franz: Interesting. I had the feeling that Siegel is really a master in conveying to the viewers exactly what he wants them to know, something that we are wrestling with all the time. I mean, surely we would have felt silly placing an oversized photo on the nightstand, so it really gives me pause when I see how he does that. Or the combination of humour and suspense. Even the action showdown with the car chasing Varrick’s biplane…when you really look at it, the confrontation of these two vehicles is just absurd.

Fiala: It is ridiculous—but also really exciting!

Huber: A combination that also speaks of the Matthau magic. He was considered a comic character actor back then, but really was mostly a comedian, what with Billy Wilder and Neil Simon. But around that time he scored with great performances in crime films: Charley Varrick, The Laughing Policeman (1973), and, of course, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). It was a breakthrough for him in some ways, and he effortlessly brought an air of comedy to these films.

Fiala: There is also something really endearing about his character. Clearly, things went wrong in Varrick’s life…

Franz: But he’s clever. He instantly figures out they accidentally robbed mafia money.

Fiala: A man of above-average IQ!

Franz: What is notable is that he does not intervene like you might expect. When his partner is killed by the mob hitman, he remains hidden and does not lift a finger.

Fiala: Well, Varrick had warned his partner earlier.

Franz: And when he sees his body, he says “You called it, kid,” but almost regretfully. If Clint Eastwood said that, it would mean something different.

Huber: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Franz: Yes, it would have turned into a tough macho punchline.

Fiala: With Matthau, there is also something soft.

Franz: He is a really fine actor. Think of the scene near the end when his getaway car won’t start. It finally does on the third attempt, and he just gives the slightest nod. It’s not even a sign of relief, more like: “That would have been really too much…” These things are really difficult to get from an actor. It probably came from Matthau himself, not from Siegel, because you cannot really signal something like this to actors, and very few are capable of doing such a thing. I couldn’t think of many in Austria—Georg Friedrich might feel that in the moment, and do this little gesture. Basically, it means acting what the audience thinks at the moment.

Fiala: But Matthau also has moments when he is consciously playing with—and for—the audience, adding a little extra. And you can’t help but being taken with it.

Franz: Like when he tells the secretary, “Which doesn’t mean I won’t throw you right out that window if I have to.” It’s another action-hero sentence, but the way he delivers it gives it an ironic ambivalence. You believe and don’t believe him at the same time, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it. Not that heavy Coens irony, but leaving things ambivalent. Even though it’s funny as repartee, you sense something scary in there that might come true any moment.

Huber: Speaking of scary, there’s something memorable about the bank manager, who’s so afraid of what the mafia might do to him that he’d rather commit suicide.

Fiala: His nervous use of the handkerchief, first wiping his forehead, then his mouth. You almost expect him to stuff it into his own throat so he can wipe even more…

Franz: It is remarkable how a small character like this becomes moving with just a few gestures and sentences. When he says, “I found my home here,” you understand that this poor sap will not be able to heed the advice that he should just run and hide. Actually, you anticipate his suicide. When he’s saying “Close the door…”

Fiala: The whole scene is filmed in a way that leads up to this.

Huber: The whole film is a character-actor treasure trove. Most notably Joe Don Baker and John Vernon, who have really great, meaty parts as the main antagonists.

Fiala: They bring something to their roles. Siegel just needs a few brushstrokes, and together they achieve a rounded character. You also like them instantly, everyone.

Huber: Even Joe Don Baker?

Fiala: Especially Joe Don Baker!

Franz: Let’s talk a bit about the set design, as we were constantly cheering certain details throughout the movie, especially those amusing little items and signs that pop up all the time. It seems obvious to me that much of this is simply inspired by reality.

Fiala: Like the wastebasket outside Tommy’s Gun Shop saying “I Eat Litter.” That would also be a great line for a T-shirt. Maybe the whole movie functions as a brilliant accumulation of T-shirt slogans.

Huber: There is also something special about the rural setting, not just because urban thrillers are more common, but the way it’s used as a natural habitat for the characters. It was all shot in Nevada, but I feel Tres Cruces could be anywhere.

Fiala: Siegel’s not interested in the boondocks as boondocks, but in the people. It’s about finding the ideal spaces to illustrate the characteristics of these people. It’s not about a specific place, like Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini (2022), where Ulrich wants to illustrate Rimini as well. Siegel’s Tres Cruces is not meant to be a concrete place—it’s a backwater that could be anywhere in the world. And he wants to describe the characters living in that backwater.

Franz: He picks interesting locations for it, like the gun shop, the trailer park, the car junkyard. We’ve just been in Ireland for location scouting, and there were many trailer parks with the exact same characteristics. Even the type of tiny lace curtains we see in Varrick’s trailer—we immediately thought we should add those to the script. But I agree that Siegel doesn’t want to portray a specific village, more a provincial state of mind. The place itself is clearly a patchwork of many places they scouted, from the junkyard to the small bridge.

Fiala: The lace curtains are a great and characteristic detail. Varrick trying to shut them properly in a stressful situation in this small space becomes really absurd—it takes some effort, as they don’t close very well. Again, this could be presented as a hoot, but Siegel is just slightly bemused, so he manages to maintain the suspense, while the audience still gets the absurdity of the moment.

Franz: It could easily slip into outright parody. The same goes for many of the décor details we loved so much, like that hilarious squirrel figurine sitting atop a log in the corner of a shop. In most movies today that type of critter would get a close-up, eliciting a laugh, but destroying the realism. Here it feels as if they really just filmed an existing place.

Fiala: There is something very modest about the mise en scène in that regard. I was often reminded of the casual beauty of much late-’60s/early-’70s television, with its pragmatic pans and zooms. He will not stress anything needlessly.

Huber: Or even compose a tableau.

Fiala: No, he’ll rather zoom past it unhurriedly, and because the place is so naturally overstuffed you will notice all kind of remarkable little things.

Franz: I love it when films take their time. Like how all the steps are shown diligently after the robbery: changing into different clothing while still in the car, the money being stuffed into prepared containers, and so on. You needn’t necessarily show all this, but Siegel insists on doing it in accurate detail. 

There’s something else I’m still thinking about, and I’m wondering what your opinion is concerning construction and plot. There’s the great moment when Varrick realizes they have stolen “too much” money, which sets a whole plan in motion about how to deal with the mafia to whom this cash ostensibly belongs, which is the bulk of the movie. By the end, Varrick’s plan has played out ingeniously—but don’t you think that for a while, he really just wants to give the money back to get off the hook? I think he changes his mind when he has the affair with the secretary who warns him not to trust her boss.

Huber: I think he sees the outlines of his master plan very early on when he breaks into the dentist’s office to remove the dental records so that he and his wife won’t be identified, and then suddenly has the idea not to remove his own record, but rather exchange it with that of his partner, who will become a patsy—partly through his own fault, and not surprisingly, considering his character. As with much good crime plotting, the whole is a bit much to take for granted, because how can you really foresee so many details? But I like the idea of that flash of inspiration—laconically underplayed—whose full extent you only realize at the end.

Fiala: And it may be even earlier, when Varrick catches the television news of the robbery, hearing that their dental records are the only hope for identification, while his partner keeps hitting the whiskey because, as he says, his teeth hurt. And Varrick may realize how to get rid of a partner he can’t really trust to do the sensible thing. With due consideration, I may have to revise my statement that you like everybody in the movie: actually, Varrick is not a nice guy. But you still sympathize with him, because he’s Matthau!

Huber: That is actually one of the greatest strengths of the film. I mean, why should you like this gangster, except that he is taking on worse gangsters? In the end, I guess you could say that everybody is ambivalent in this movie. It’s true that you kind of like all of them, but you also see their dark sides, no excuses.

Fiala: That’s one of the problems of contemporary cinema, and not just Hollywood: it’s more and more difficult to get funding for projects like this, where your protagonist is nominally evil, but his motivations are fully comprehensible. That kind of difficult ambivalence. Although I will say that the way Matthau stalks through the landscape in his white flying suit, with the helmet and the pilot’s goggles, did remind me of a recent great villain, played by Robert De Niro in Killers of the Flower Moon. He also wears these kind of ridiculous goggles, and is both ridiculous-funny and evil—actually, much more malignant than Varrick could ever be.

Franz: Yes, but the balance is not nearly as impressive. And you can’t compare the funny, which is almost consistent in Charley Varrick. But of course, Scorsese foremost wants to make a film with a message.

Huber: Whereas Siegel, like Carpenter, Walsh, or Hawks, is a member of the “If I had a message, I’d send a telegram” party.

Franz: So what is the message of Charley Varrick? Maybe that is what Matthau didn’t get. Is it against capitalism? For the independent lone fighter? In the end, it should be up to the audience; at least, that is also what we want with our movies. Things should not be easily resolved, so that you think, “All is clear, they wanted to say this, so they did that.” Rather, you have to look at it step by step, and each step can have different meanings. You have to trust your audience.

chuber@cinema-scope.com Huber Christoph