Cropduster work seems a bit easier than this life…


Directed by: Don Siegel

Written by: Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner (screenplay); based on the novel The Looters by John Reese

Featuring: Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker, Felicia Farr, Andrew Robinson, Sheree North, Benson Fong, Jacqueline Scott, John Vernon

Charley Varrick and his wife Nadine are down on their luck show people, once performing daring aerial stunts in a biplane, but now they use Charley’s skills to crop-dust, unfortunately the big conglomerates have swallowed up that work so hiring a couple of like-minded ne’er-do-wells they rob small town banks figuring that the amounts taken attract less attention. That is until his latest robbery takes in a lot of money and ends up with dead police officers too, this bank is used to launder money for the mafia and now Charley is no longer flying under the radar…

Don Siegel famous for his hard-boiled and at that time ‘realisitic’ thrillers that often featured Clint Eastwood directed this hard-boiled and ‘realistic thriller in the seventies but instead of Eastwood, who turned down the role of hitman Mr. Molly, his main character was the mainly comedic actor Walter Matthau. It should not have worked but somehow the film and story do.

Made in 1973 and watched through the lens of 2023 there are many faults and hokey parts within but the film is not without charm and thrills and due to some good acting from the main actors it certainly drags itself above other fare from that time.

Matthau, who famously did not like the film, does not let this show in his performance and plays to his strong suite, he is laconic, easy going and intelligent. What you do not expect from world-weary looking actor is a great deal of double-crossing and while actually not violent, the threat of violence, and menace which do lead to death and murder.

The casting and acting perfectly counterpoint this by having his major protagonists all being awful human beings, Andrew Robinson, so convincing as Scorpio in Dirty Harry that he got death threats, here is dialled down from that to ‘just’ being unthinking, greedy and selfish, traits which means he pays the ultimate price. Hunting down the robbers is Joe Don Baker who is pitch-perfect as the psychopath mafia hitman Mr. Molly. He plays it straight, no eye-swivelling over-the-top histrionics, the type of well-dressed, pipe-smoking large chap you would hardly notice walking down the street. After all if you are noticeably mad and behaved like a killer all day, it would not be hard to find you.

Top it all off and we have another former Siegel go-to the late great John Vernon, as the slimy, double-dealing, president of the bank and mafia frontman. Playing to his acting strength he steals every scene he is in and plays down, quiet, confident and realistic. A joy to watch.

Even the supporting characters, sheriffs, the weak-willed bank manager and double-dealing photographer Jewell Everett played with great skill by Sheree North are all at their best. Proving casting supporting characters is important and if your cast is good it will elevate any story you have on screen.

The film is based extremely loosely on The Looters novel (which does not focus on any one character and has no happy ending) is nothing original involving small-time crooks crossing the mafia. Charley Varrick was focussed on to give the audience someone to root for but herein lies that particular rub, Varrick, even played by Matthau, is not nice and I for one did not particularly care if he lived or died by the end. His wife and partners shot two policeman and a septuagenarian security guard just for what they thought was a few thousand dollars. Just because their adversaries were more corrupt and murderous than them does not make them ‘better’.

All-in-all the tale whips along and is fairly realistic and believable, especially for early 70s cops and robbers, but what was probably thought as a great twist and exciting denouement is the film’s weakest point and took me out of the story. Without spoiling it for any who have not seen this film I would say it looks as if the final act was written by an excitable 16-year-old boy in a hurry. Too easily wrapped up, formerly thoughtful and professional characters suddenly become dunderheads to allow a ‘happy’ ending.

A reasonably enjoyable film with a disappointing ending. Very 1970s so do not expect enlightened attitudes

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