” ‘Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.’ I like that. Has a ring of–finality.”
I should probably explain.
Donald E. Westlake had no role whatsoever in the writing or production of Charley Varrick. It was not based on anything he’d written. I don’t know if the people responsible for this movie ever read any of Westlake’s heist books, though given that it came out the same year as John Flynn’s adaptation of The Outfit, it’s a safe bet they knew his name. I don’t know if John H. Reese, the author of the novel this movie was very loosely based on was familiar with Westlake’s work in the crime/heist genre, but there’s reason to think he was. Reese was mainly known for westerns, and wrote very little in the overall mystery field (The Looters was his first crime novel, and he only wrote one more), so Westlake probably didn’t read much or any of him, but you never know.
Here’s the thing–I’ve loved this movie for a good while now. It’s probably my favorite film ever made in this genre. Not just my personal favorite–I think it’s the best. I think Don Siegel, the guy who made it, was the greatest director of crime flicks who ever exposed a negative (it’s him or John Huston). And I’ve been curious for a while now about what the novel this film adapts is like. And now I know.
The first edition hardcover is from Random House–1968–Westlake was still publishing there under his own name, but not for much longer. Coe was still around, and Stark would show up there soon enough, so yeah, Westlake and Reese would presumably each have had at least some inkling of the other’s existence.
A good first edition of The Looters (or even a crap one) will run you well over a hundred bucks online. The paperback, making its futile misguided attempt to entice Mario Puzo readers, is ugly, and not cheap. I decided to go with interlibrary loan–the copy on my desk hails from a public library upstate. It has to go back soon. So I figured I better write this now. (Also, I’m still rereading the next Westlake novel in the queue–try to get that review done by sometime next week.)
It’s really hard to say why some books get bought up by Hollywood and some don’t. If this had been any kind of bestseller, if it had done even reasonably brisk sales, copies wouldn’t be so expensive now. The high price for used copies nowadays probably stems from relatively high demand (because of the movie) combined with relatively low supply (due to average sales for the genre and publisher, and the fact that a lot of copies have not survived the decades).
Doesn’t seem anything John Reese ever wrote (and he wrote a lot) has made it to Kindle. Completely out of print, in all formats. But somebody bought the rights to The Looters, probably not long after it came out (conceivably before it came out), and it wasn’t the first time Reese had tapped into that well. Three of his short stories in the western genre had been adapted, one into a movie with Fred MacMurray.
But for many who went to school in a certain era, the book below would be what they remembered him for–won him an award. I remember reading it myself as a kid. Good story. Mind you, back then I’d read pretty much anything with a dog on the cover.
Also out of print. Because stories about ranchers ruthlessly exterminating wolves with the help of really big dogs (not in the frontier days, there’s cars and electricity and tourists passing through) just ain’t gonna play in most parts of the country anymore, nor should they. Old Yeller can still get away with it, because he’s protecting his family (and the wolf was rabid). And because that book is much better written and illustrated. But see who the hero is here? Not the wolf–one of Life’s true independents, and among the last ones too, on that range (you might say they’ve made a comeback since then). Nope, the dog is the hero. A canine cop, out to eradicate the independents. Hmm.
The screenplay for Charley Varrick is credited to Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner, but in reading Don Siegel’s account of the making of this movie in his credit-by-credit professional memoir, A Siegel Film, I learned that the two never worked together on it. Rodman had been tasked with writing a script based on the book for Universal, years before, and nobody liked it much (probably stuck closer to the book), so the project languished in development.
Siegel took an interest in it, and hired Riesner, who had worked with him on his previous film at Warner Brothers, Dirty Harry, which had of course been a box office sensation, and presumably that gave Siegel a bit more leeway to do what he wanted here than he usually had. I’m tempted to say he felt lucky, but that would be so obvious.
He tried to get his buddy Clint Eastwood, who he’d just finished turning into a legit A-List star, interested in playing the lead–the lead being a bank robber who gets away with it. Eastwood, who thought the world of Siegel, turned him down flat. He didn’t like the character–said he had no ‘redeeming qualities.’ Yeah, looking at his list of roles, before and since, I don’t know what he meant by that either, but I’m guessing he just figured the movie wouldn’t do that well (he was right too), and he was just getting some real traction in the biz. I like Clint’s movies and all (even some of the ones he made himself). He has long struck me as being a character with few redeeming qualities away from the film set, but anyway he photographs nice.
So instead of the combative macho camaraderie that generally prevailed between Eastwood and Siegel, who I get the impression never tired of putting each other through various forms of hell, Siegel had to work with Walter Matthau–who had, in fact, made his own movie about a bank robber, years before–one who didn’t get away with it, who met with the traditional fate of movie heisters. Interesting film, shot in a near-documentary style, not very good, pops up on TCM now and again. He must have enjoyed the experience. Met his wife on that movie, too, and she looks quite enjoyable indeed. Marriage lasted. No Eastwood, he.
But he put Siegel through a few kinds of hell also. Siegel loved everything Matthau did in front of the camera, and said he was a pain in the ass to deal with once the camera stopped rolling. Did not understand the script. Did not understand the character. And apparently, he didn’t need to. Because he just was the character.
Lalo Schifrin, the Argentinian composer best known for the Mission Impossible theme, who had also worked on Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry with Siegel, did the score. He and Siegel had a rare rapport, and Siegel talks with pure admiration of the way Schifrin figured out how to put music over the climactic biplane vs. muscle car scene in the movie, the kind of scene you normally never put music over, because it gets in the way, but somehow Siegel felt like this one needed it.
Michael C. Butler was the cinematographer–his first big gig. His dad was close friends with Siegel. His mother died just before shooting started. Siegel told him to go home, they’d delay shooting, he said no way, his mom would want him to work. You getting the impression this was less like a film set than a family reunion? (With Matthau as the cranky eccentric uncle everybody’s a bit in awe of, but not Siegel, because he was used to stars, and knew how to wrangle them.)
As was increasingly typical for many of his better, more polished, individual films–the ones he cared most about–Siegel was his own producer. He always liked that. Cleaner. Simpler.
So you mainly had a group of people who knew each other very well, understood each other, could communicate without much difficulty, and since Siegel was the producer, no suits getting in the way most of the time. And no real star egos, except Matthau, who might kibbitz a bit, make a bunch of suggestions that wouldn’t work (because, I’d posit, he’d made his own bank robber movie, and it hadn’t turned out great, and he was trying to impose all the ideas he’d never been able to execute properly in his film on this film)–but he was all pro once the director yelled action.
(Lee Marvin could have maybe been an even better Charley, except he’d have been more dangerous, less cerebral. It would have to be a different story, that would end with a fight, not a ruse. Siegel had, of course, directed Marvin in a made-for-TV adaptation of The Killers [that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Hemingway story], and I’d talk about that here, but Lady, I Haven’t Got The Time.)
Great supporting cast, of course. Joe Don Baker (his best performance ever, I think) as a Dixie-accented hitman. Richard Vernon as a smooth unctious frontman for the mob. Sheree North as a sly slatternly photographer who doesn’t impress easy. And Felicia Farr as Sybil Fort, the Vernon character’s shrewd secretary/mistress, who implausibly but delightfully ends up ‘boxing the compass’ in a round bed with Varrick. And the weird thing about that was that in real life she was married to Matthau’s buddy Jack Lemmon, and somehow it doesn’t seem fair that Lemmon never got to do a relaxed intimate grown-up sex scene with Matthau’s wife, but they do seem to be enjoying themselves.
Siegel claimed he believed every picture he ever made would be a hit, even though he knew in practice that you just never know. Charley Varrick was a flop. Siegel’s alibi was that Matthau had been badmouthing the movie to every reviewer he talked to (what else would you expect from an independent?), but it hardly seems likely that would have made the difference between a hit and a flop. A flop and a marginal success, maybe.
The fact is, this movie wasn’t what anybody would have expected, and the objections of both Eastwood and Matthau were not entirely offbase–it’s not for everybody.
Some mainly pretty bad people rob a bank in a tiny hick western town. Two citizens of the town are killed, one of them a cop. The heist planner–the hero of the movie, its title character in fact–didn’t kill anyone personally (never so much as punches anyone in the entire movie), but neither is he feeling any apparent guilt over it, then or ever afterward.
He’d tried making an honest living, working as a crop duster after his career as a barnstormer fizzled, and then the combines pushed him out. He can’t work for other people, because he’s an independent by nature. He can’t live on the dole, because he’s not a bum. So he meticulously plans and executes minor bank robberies. And he finally robs one full of mob money. He realizes right away that’s what it must be. Enough money to retire on, if you’re careful. If you’re not careful, you won’t have to worry about retirement.
His wife (played by a shopworn but still lovely Jacqueline Scott, best remembered for The Fugitive) was the driver on the job, and she died too, after getting them to safety. He kisses her dead lips passionately, and then has his partner set the car to blow up with her inside it (and has guilt-free carnal knowledge of a total stranger very shortly afterwards, while wearing the ring he’d just taken from his wife’s cold finger maybe two days earlier).
The partner, played by another Siegel alum, Andy Robinson, is an edgy out of control fellow, unprofessional, untrustworthy. He says to hell with whose money it is, who might be coming after them, he’s going to spend it, and he’s not going to wait long to do it. He threatens Charley. Charley, seemingly conceding, says “You called it, kid.” He says that once more in the movie.
Most of the film is Charley, a deeper player than anyone could have guessed, working a long intricate con on both sides of the law, so that he can get away clean, with most of the cash, and nobody will ever know that he did that. To just disappear into thin air, free as a bird–the Last of the Independents. That was Siegel’s preferred title, the words that begin and end the film, but honestly, I think the title the studio stuck him with works better. Though there were several.
There is no explaining Charley Varrick. The film or the man. You only know that a man like that can be either free or dead, and there is nothing in-between. He’s precisely the kind of existentialist criminal character a filmmaker once told Westlake American movies don’t know how to do. In American movies, either the bank robber is just a bad man who has to go down bloody, or he’s a good man who only did the robbery because he needed money for somebody’s operation (and may still go down bloody–High Sierra comes to mind, except that wasn’t exactly Roy Earle’s first dance, was it?).
Westlake said it wasn’t really that simple, but in commercial terms, it usually is. People want the vicarious excitement of being in on some criminal enterprise, but then they want the robbers punished in some way–they die, they go to jail, they don’t get to keep the loot–to expiate their vicarious sense of guilt. There’s none of that here. You saw what Charley did, you wanted him to do it, you wanted him to get away with it, because if he doesn’t, that means the System always wins, and the System has to lose sometimes, or there’s no hope.
Yes, it was mainly mob money, but not entirely, and innocent people died because of what he did. And his reaction to that is–well–there is none. He didn’t want anyone to die, but he always knew it could happen. He took his chances, and everybody else would have to take theirs. No remorse, no regrets, no excuses. They’re a waste of time. Whatever Charley Varrick feels or doesn’t feel about what he’s done, he’ll never share those feelings with us. His feelings are none of our business.
Not for nothing is this movie on a list entitled “Not Quite Parker” over at The Violent World of Parker site. And not for nothing was blues guitar god Rory Gallagher inspired to write one of his best songs after seeing it. Though when Joe Don Baker’s Molly is onscreen, Brute Force and Ignorance might be a better fit. They debuted on the same album.
So anyway, there’s lots of reviews of this movie already, and it’s not directly on-topic for this blog, but here’s the thing. I finally read the book they based it on. And guess what? It’s not very good. Which is not to say it isn’t interesting–any storyteller with a vision, which I surely think John Reese had, can be interesting to read, if you are interested in people, since as I’ve mentioned several times since starting this blog, there’s no better pathway into a human mind than fiction, good or bad–and this isn’t bad at all. It’s just not that good. It’s a bit of a mess, really. Reese was out of his element here.
And it’s not about The Last of the Independents, either. It’s really about a young, good-looking, sensitive, and deeply insecure policeman, serving his first day on the job in that tiny hick western town of Tres Cruces. His name is Kenneth Steele, but his nickname–and it’s not meant as a compliment–is ‘Stainless.’ Yeah. Stainless Steele. That’s the name of the first chapter. And several others. It’s one of those multiple POV books, where each chapter begins with the name of the character whose POV it’s written from. The second chapter is from Charley’s POV, and a few after that. Ten POV characters in all. One of whom is named ‘Possum Trot.’ I am not making that up.
Okay. Spoiler alert. You want to know just how far the movie got from the book here? If not, stop reading.
This novel is 177 pages long in the first edition. Charley Varrick gets his head beaten in with a bowling ball by Molly Edwards on page 130. Molly gets shot down by Stainless Steele on page 169.
Yeah. Chew on that a moment. I’ll wait.
In the novel, Charley Varrick is a career criminal, been to prison more than once, never remotely aspired to making an honest living, never gave a damn about anyone but himself. He was never married to Nadine, the character played by Jacqueline Scott in the movie, never felt anything but contempt for her, did not kiss her dead lips before setting her body on fire, felt nothing but relief that she was gone, except maybe irritation that she screwed up her job as driver for the heist (it’s not clear she actually did). He has every intention of betraying his surviving partner.
He knows there’s something funny about that much money being in that little podunk bank, but never figures out he just stole laundered mob money until it’s much too late. He and Molly know each other from prison. Molly, also nowhere near the fierce focused professional he was in the movie, but still a tough mean hombre (and also intending to keep all the money himself), spots Charley on the street, guesses right away he pulled the bank job, and that’s all she wrote for Charley Varrick. Let me give you a sampling of Reese’s prose here, which is a bit hit or miss, but this is a solid hit.
Molly whipped the Imperial to the curb and rolled out of it. “Charley!” he called softly. “Come here. Get in this car.”
Charley turned slowly. In prison he had always been one of the wise old heads who by advice and example taught the wild youngsters to live out their terms without going mad. Molly was a different kind of aristocrat, solitary and dangerous, and he knew that he was one of the few people Charley Varrick feared.
But Charley tried. “Let me alone,” he said in a soft, expressionless yet carrying voice. “I been keeping clean, Molly. See you around.”
“You ain’t been keeping clean,” Molly drawled.
“The least you can do is not make trouble for a fella.”
Molly walked toward him. They were about the same height, but Molly was fifteen years younger and thirty pounds heavier than Charley. He had moreover the quick, killing decisiveness of a panther, an animal quality somewhat lacking in Charley.
Yeah, I think Reese probably read some Richard Stark in his day. Not that Stark invented the idea of a predator in human form. And not that Reese could match Stark’s wily willful way with words, even at his very best. Not going by this, anyway. And none of his westerns are e-vailable either. I mean, you can only read so many books in one lifetime. This is a late book in Reese’s canon. I have to assume he’s giving it his absolute best shot here.
Reese’s Varrick has no ingenious intricate plan for survival, or anything resembling a sense of honor or professional integrity. He’s the one threatening his frightened guilt-ridden out-of-his-depth partner, not the other way around. He always intended to keep the whole score for himself.
He sure as hell never gets to screw a smart sexy blonde in a round bed–in fact, the characters never even meet, or learn of each others’ existence. Sybil Fort is just a plot device here, to make sure the mobsters get theirs in the end too (she’s going to turn state’s evidence on her boss because one of his associates frightened the hell out of her). And she’s not a blonde, or a knock-out, but that’s neither here nor there. (It’s worth mentioning that Reese had a gift for describing ordinarily attractive women, and that is one of the legit pleasures of this book.)
The Charley Varrick in The Looters is, to put it plainly, a sleazy third-rate low-rent criminal sociopath, who knows his chosen profession pretty well, but thinks he’s a whole lot smarter than he really is. Oh, and he can’t fly a plane–the crop duster thing, that ‘We are the Last of the Independents!’ motto on the side of the van he’s driving–that was just a front he was putting up to blend into the community, prior to looting it.
As a fellow once said, ain’t that a kick in the head? Or a bowling ball, same thing.
Westlake said many times that Richard Stark was a romantic in the way he wrote about crime. Which doesn’t mean everybody in his books is perfect, far from it. He wants us to see the ugly side of the underworld, but he still expects his professionals to be professionals, to know their business, to live up to some ideal that probably doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, and real life isn’t the point of the Parker books, never was. You put enough reality in there to make the romance believable–and to convey the underlying truths about selfhood and identity the author is trying to get across. You don’t have to believe Don Quixote is real to know Don Quixote tells the truth.
I think there’s a strong romantic streak in John Reese as well, but it expresses itself differently. Like there’s an actual romance in the book–between Stainless and a slightly older girl who just moved into town to be the new art teacher. He got a good look at the robbers, and they don’t have a police sketch artist in such a small department, so she gets dragooned to come see him in the hospital (he got winged during the robbery), and do some drawings based on his descriptions (which are of course superb), and of course they fall for each other at first sight, and they hop into a motel bed the moment he’s released, and are headed for the altar by the time the book ends, like maybe two days later, if that. His frigid domineering mother doesn’t like it, but he’s determined to break free of her, and finally be a man, and you’ve seen this movie before, and it’s not nearly as good as Charley Varrick. Oh, and he’s a virgin when the book starts–now you get why his nickname isn’t a compliment.
This would, by the way, have made a perfectly good 1950’s low-budget crime picture. Which Don Siegel might well have directed, and he’d have had somebody rewrite the hell out of it then too. And the studio censors would have insisted the premarital sex at the motel be cut out. Party poopers. But it feels very dated for the time period it’s set in.
I’m giving the impression Reese wasn’t a good writer, and again, I haven’t read enough of his stuff to know how good he was. There were points, here and there, where he really had me going, and I thought (as some online reviewers have) that this would turn out to be a forgotten classic. But on reflection, I don’t believe it is. I think it was forgotten because it’s largely forgettable. Not because Reese wasn’t a pro–it’s very obvious he knows his business well, and he’s no hack–he believes every word he writes. He’s damned sincere. Maybe too sincere.
I found some points of comparison between him and another western-raised author, named Willeford, but Willeford was a whole lot more self-aware, and couldn’t write a clichéd turn of phrase or character development if his life depended on it. So much comes down to knowing who you are, knowing what rings true, and what doesn’t. Literary technique is merely the medium by which your tell your truths to the world, and some truths are more compelling than others.
And yet, reason dourly asks me, isn’t this more true to life than the movie based on it? Isn’t this the genuine nature and likely fate of a real-life Charley Varrick, and shouldn’t we be more sympathetic to an earnest young patrolman finding his way in the world (not to mention the older and highly professional lawmen, local and federal, who appear in this book), than we do to some sleazebag thief and killer?
Yeah, and we should probably care more about Banquo than Macbeth. What’s your point? You want to see a three hour play about Banquo? Be my guest. You can just bet that if Shakespeare hadn’t written that play based on scurrilous English propaganda about a great Scottish king who never did any of those vile deeds, the hero of any historical film they made of that story would be MacDuff. I mean, he wins the final sword fight.
Reese creates potentially interesting characters, and then he over-explains them, while at the very same time under-developing them (it’s too many POV characters for such a short book). He’s too much on the side of the law to be objective here. Did he ever write differently about outlaws in the old west? Maybe, but look who his hero is in that dog vs. wolf book.
He writes in some depth about organized crime, and not one word of it makes any sense–he dabbles in both anti-Italian and anti-Jewish stereotypes, and I don’t believe he was any kind of bigot–he just can’t quite see how offensive he’s being. Never mind offensive, great writing is often deeply offensive–he’s out of key.
He makes it sound like American Jews only got into the Mafia recently, after the Italians started losing interest–the book came out in 1968! Meyer Lansky was in his 60’s by then. Bugsy Siegel (no relation, I trust) got whacked in 1947.
You compare it to Westlake’s brilliant little analysis in 361 (presented by an untrustworthy character, not the infallible narrator), of how it’s always outsider groups, of all ethnicities, who get sucked into organized crime, and you see the difference between a young master and an old journeyman (Reese was in his late 50’s when he wrote this book).
Siegel and Riesner got around the whole mess there by making Vernon’s character, who is Jewish in the book, a snooty WASP who makes snide comments about ‘bagelbiters’ (referring to Norman Fell’s honest put-upon FBI agent in the film, who is actually pretty close to Reese’s take on the same character–seriously, I don’t think Reese hated anybody, he does not strike me as the type).
Realistic? Maybe not, but it’s better storytelling, because there’s no room in the story for that kind of in-depth social commentary, accurate or not (and it’s mainly not). You have to know how far you can stretch it before it becomes a distraction. Sneak those messages in, don’t blast them over the PA system. Show, don’t tell. But if you need to tell, tell it right. Tell it straight. And keep it simple.
Reese’s book provided nothing but the bare outlines of a story, and some raw character sketches, to the movie that is now better-remembered than any of his books (and still something of a cult film–you can’t even get a decent DVD of it in the U.S.–pan & scan! Wait for TCM’s letterboxed version). Siegel, who I think most definitely saw himself as one of the last independents, saw the potential for something much more interesting. And definitely for better dialogue (reading the novel, I don’t think I came across a single line I remembered from the movie).
And I’ve often complained on this very blog, and at some length, about this way movie directors have of taking some hard-working print author’s brainchild and remaking it so completely that it says the exact opposite of what it said before. And I’m praising this director (and the screenwriter) for doing that here. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about who did the story first. It’s about who did it best. It’s about who had the most interesting points to get across. It’s about who knew precisely what he was trying to express, and precisely how to do that. All stories are true, from a certain perspective. Not all stories are equally well told. Not all stories are equally memorable. Some stories live on forever. Others fall by the wayside.
Charley Varrick never had his brains bashed out with a bowling ball. Charley Varrick never doublecrossed a partner who didn’t cross him first. Charley Varrick had a plan. Charley Varrick outsmarted the Law and the Mob. Charley Varrick got away clean, and lived free, and died without regrets, except maybe he missed Nadine, who wasn’t some cheap slut–she was a hell of a driver. Maybe that isn’t real. But it’s true. Charley Varrick was The Last of the Independents. May his flame burn forever in the soul of man. Because dammit, we can’t let the System win every time. And Stainless Steele is a silly name. You know what isn’t?