Today, Don Siegel's 1973 thriller Charley Varrick is known mainly for its influence on Pulp Fiction, most notably in the dialogue about a hoodlum going to work on some poor sap with "a pair of pliers and a blowtorch." Those immortal words were first uttered by veteran character actor and Animal House heavy John Vernon, whose character's first name, Maynard, was also lifted for a bit part in Pulp Fiction. In truth, Pulp Fiction doesn't borrow anywhere near as much from Charley Varrick as, say, Reservoir Dogs does from The Killing, but Siegel's film does form part of the vast crazy-quilt of forgotten and half-remembered violent, lurid genre movies which shaped Quentin Tarantino's ebullient trash aesthetic.
Recently released on DVD, Charley Varrick stars Walter Matthau as a former trick pilot reduced to robbing banks with his wife and a hot-headed young punk played by Andrew Robinson, who two years earlier made an indelible impression as the psychotic heavy in Siegel's Dirty Harry. Matthau and Robinson successfully rob a small-town bank for more than $750,000 in a heist that claims Matthau's spouse/getaway driver, but Robinson's elation is tempered by Matthau's grim realization that the money belongs to the mob, which isn't about to accept such a substantial loss lying down. Joe Don Baker costars as an icy hitman dispatched to recover the mob's ill-gotten loot and kill anyone who stands between him and the money. From there, the noose gradually tightens around Matthau and Robinson's necks as the feds close in and the long tentacles of organized crime make their presence felt as far as sunny New Mexico.
Matthau delivers his usual sterling performance as a savvy operator working doggedly to finagle his way out of a seemingly impossible situation, but the film's real revelation comes from Baker, whose racist, sexist, ass-kicking brute of a henchman oozes malevolent magnetism. A low-key, tough little thriller punctuated by casual bursts of brutality and deadpan humor, Charley Varrick is informed by a quiet professionalism that suits a movie about feds and criminals doing their jobs, whether that means laundering money, making fake passports, or robbing banks. These characters have little room for anything resembling sentimentality; they're dominated by the hardheaded pragmatism necessary for survival in a grim, unrelenting underworld that rewards duplicity and betrayal. In this harsh context, the few moments of silent, understated mourning Matthau does for a wife cut down, appropriately enough, in the line of dutykissing her cold lips, sliding her wedding ring from her hand onto his own, and later gazing sadly at pictures representing their bittersweet life togethertake on a surprising poignancy and emotional resonance. In another movie, Matthau's minimalist grieving might seem callous or wildly inadequate, but in a tough little crime caper where the overwhelming instinct for self-preservation trumps less practical concerns, it becomes nothing short of a grand romantic gesture.