Charley Varrick plays the older male lead, the man who’s seen it all before — and somehow ended up at the bottom. He’s a man with a past — almost from another time — struggling in the modern world, a place with little decency. He once worked as part of a flying circus act (the kind of thing that had its heyday in the 1930s), now he’s using his crop dusting business as cover for his criminal activity: robbing banks. This new career direction involves working with unsavoury types: people like Harman Sullivan.
Sullivan is immediately recognizable as the sloppy, criminal ‘scumbag’, a hot head, eager to use his gun, a man who will do anything to save his own skin. Sullivan insinuates that the only reason Varrick is still alive is because Sullivan needs Varrick to fly him down to Mexico. Varrick is a man of the world; he knows exactly what kind of person he’s up against. When he visits a photographer (who is producing their fake passports) he deliberately leaves his trailer park address with her, knowing that she is connected to the mafia and she will share his address with Molly, who will turn up and only Sullivan will be there. Although our sympathy lies with Varrick and he is presented as a ‘decent’ person in a morally bankrupt world, he is also ‘a bad guy’, or at least a hard person to empathise with. He’s leading a gang of armed robbers who have murdered policemen and bank guards in cold blood.Molly, a ruthless mafia killer, knows how to get results — and delights in using violence — dressing like a cowboy businessman, he wears a suit, a Stetson, and cowboy boots — always aloof and matter-of-fact in his approach. The only pleasure he derives from anything is his sadistic behaviour. He breaks the mould of a 1970s villain: not drinking, gambling, womanizing, or driving a flashy car. When he beats the photographer (who is already assisting him) simply to pass time, it’s clear he’s a sadistic psychopath. And later he enjoys torturing Sullivan to death with a knife.
The action unfolds in a ‘workmanlike’ manner, handled in a naturalistic and unfussy way. The visual look and feel lacks obvious stylistic motifs or showiness. It depicts ‘a man’s world’, a place where female characters are incidental. Although the heist’s capable getaway driver is a woman, she’s killed early on. The other female characters are not real characters as such, merely walk-on and walk-off parts: prostitutes in a brothel, and a treacherous ‘sexy’ photographer who’s only there to fulfil a plot point and affirm Molly’s nastiness. In another blatant plot point linkup, Varrick seduces a bank executive’s secretary. She warns him not to trust them, which prepares Varrick for the climactic action sequence, a car vs biplane chase.
In Charley Varrick the mafia are synonymous with business as usual. Their criminal activities are interwoven with legitimate business — they come and go within the bounds of corporate America. Molly, their psychotic cowboy hitman, an ever the dutiful employee, dresses in a suit and devotes his life to the organisation. He’s sold his soul to ‘the system’. Varrick, ‘The Last of the Independents’, is the antithesis of corporate America. He’s an outsider — not a saint by any means — a working class man who’s struggling to pay the bills.
The story focuses on three central characters, Varrick, Sullivan and Molly: all of them men. Varrick is the ordinary ‘man in the street’, struggling to survive in a complicated world. Sullivan is the loser who lacks discipline: a danger to his co-robbers, likely to shoot his mouth off or do something stupid. Molly is relentlessly controlled, focused on his work. By understanding his adversaries, Varrick outwits them. He refuses to rise to Sullivan’s taunts, placating him with alcohol; and he tricks Molly sending the killer into an emotional rage, which stops the mafia man thinking rationally.
The story has its eccentric side, and drips with 1970s personality, but it’s quirky, offbeat feel, belies a grim world fuelled by macho competition, where there are no real heroes.