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Charley Varrick and Harman Sullivan(SPOILERS)

One thing that has always intrigued me about "Charley Varrick" is how, while the basis story is "brains versus brawn," i.e. "How will middle-aged Charley Varrick outfox the muscular hitman sent to kill him without having to fight him?," Walter Matthau is still called upon to project a certain physical menace himself in the film.

This comes out early and often in Charley's relationship with Harman Sullivan(Andy Robinson), the surviving member of the bank robbery gang that is otherwise dead after the film's bank robbery opening.

Its something that is clearly there to see, between Charley and Harman, yet it triggers some thought about how they met up, got to where they are now.

What's clearly there to see is this: they are the only two survivors of the bank robbery gang. They have gotten an unexpected $750,000 plus in bank money(Mafia drop money.) Charley wants to lie low and not spend the money for "three, maybe four years." Harman wants his share NOW. Harman wants to spend the money NOW.

And while the men start the movie fairly respectful of each other(after all, Harman has to watch Charley's wife die in Charley's arms), that slowly dissolves. Harman wants his share now. Harman wants to spend his share NOW. And if Charley is going to get in his way, well--it is implied that the younger man is certainly ready to take on the older man to get his way.

It is worth remembering that Walter Matthau -- being a man of considerable height --played a few tough bullies on early TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock presents. He played gangsters (in a cheapjack movie he directed called Gangster Story, for instance.) As a younger man, Matthau COULD be menacing. As a middle-aged man in Charley Varrick, he is menacing enough.

For instance, at one point early in the story, Matthau growls to Harman: "For once in your life, would you do what I say?" There's a father-son angle to the scolding here, the smarter man is keeping the dumber man "in line." (I also wonder: maybe Varrick used to have the now-dead tough guy "Al Dutcher" of the gang to keep Harman in line, but has lost that enforcer.)

Matthau is also consistent in "riding herd" on Harman. When Harman marvels at all this money to spend, Charley reminds him "one third. I get two thirds." Two thirds evidently includes the share of Charley's dead wife. Harmon humors Charley. "Sure."

You figure that Harman is waiting for his chance to kill Charley and take everything, but he's not sure when to take it, or if he really can. For his part, Charley tries to keep Harman as a team mate, but they reach the point where Harman reveals that he's keeping Charley around to help fly them to Mexico in his crop duster and "If you aren't good for that, jimmy dick, what are you good for?

Matthau silently chews his gum for a long time in response -- thinking to himself -- and we know: he will now do what it takes to eliminate Harman, but without fighting or killing him himself.

Its brilliant what Charley comes up with. Starting with getting Harman "pass out drunk," taking the money(and its power) away from Harman. And hiding it. ("Its in a safe place." ) Charley takes control of the situation. Harman can't kill him now.

Even though "the main event" is the Mafia and hitman Molly(hulking Joe Don Baker) coming after Charley, there is plenty of tension in wondering how Charley will deal with Harman. Director Don Siegel upped the ante here by casting Harman with Andy Robinson, who was the sadistic and repulsive maniac in Siegel's "Dirty Harry" just one film before. Charley Varrick has a VERY dangerous comrade in Scorpio, even if THIS version of Scorpio isn't a psycho and is rather small time. Its brilliant casting.

And when the sadistic Molly becomes Charley's weapon in eliminating Harman("You called it, kid," Charley says to Harman's corpse), there is a weird charge to Harman's death: we get the weird pleasure of seeing the Evil Scorpio take on more physical punishment than he did in Dirty Harry!


Correct sir!


brains over brawn