"Charley Varrick"— like a Steve McQueen movie but with a grumpy high school principal starring in his own fantasy

Heed the digital sea change, my friends, as we watch the DVD shelves of Best Buy recede into the ether. We're running out of chances to scrutinize a movie in our hands, from scanning the blurbs on the back to gawking at the cover art. This tactile ritual has somehow morphed into the same thumb-scrolling interface with which we buy cheeseburgers and beauty creams. It's all screen-blur hokum anymore. There's no magic. No mystery. No mold. 

This is how I rationalize my VHS collection. 

When it comes to hunting VHS in Oregon, everything south of Salem is a bonanza. I've maintained a healthy rotation between the Salvation Army and St. Vinnie stores of Albany, Corvallis, Junction City, Eugene and Springfield. The hippies, artists and freakniks that settled the Willamette Valley have made thrifting fun again, bless their slowly clogging hearts. Every single time I go out for a dig I come home with gold. 

You have to be careful filling up your garage with this shit, but it does get you out of the house and pushes you to discover new films outside of the digital trough. 

One such gem is Charley Varrick

The key art is amazing and reeks of fine Italian trash: the red grindhouse font, the orange creamsicle background, the badass hoisting a revolver:

Varrick's director, Don Siegel, was part of an old guard of auteurs who could pack cinemas before Spielberg, Lucas, and Cameron turned the blockbuster into a formula. He gave us the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the gun nut cream dream Dirty Harry and the bare-bones suspense of Escape from Alcatraz. His version of The Beguiled, an offbeat Civil War film, marked the only time a young Clint Eastwood was ever killed on screen, let alone by a little girl. 

Siegel often worked with Eastwood and also directed Cassavetes, Elvis and Charles Bronson in his lifetime. So when the master director came off of the massive success of Dirty Harry, he decided his next film would star…Walter Matthau. 

Charley Varrick is a rare bird: at once a noir action classic while feeling like something out of Adult Swim. It's like watching a Steve McQueen movie that decides to follow a grumpy high school principal who is finally starring in his own fantasy. It's important to note that Charley Varrick is not a comedy; Matthau shuffles and mumbles his way through robbing banks, seducing various babes and kicking bounty hunter ass. Given these elements, it's the whitest blaxploitation movie ever made. 

Another striking aspect to the film is Joe Don Baker. For much of his life, JDB was cast as a buffoon, a ham who gets clowned by some young buck on a rebellious streak. He spent much of his career playing surly bosses or uptight dads who twang on about kids these days. Not so in Charley Varrick. JDB is a junkyard dog. The man is in pure command as a headhunter, gliding from scene to groovy scene, chewing up lines and stomping anyone who gets in his way. It's almost like a Hanna-Barbera version of Anton Chigurh. 

If that's not enough, one of the greatest lines in the film was later lifted by Quentin Tarantino for the basement gimp scene in Pulp Fiction. It involves a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. 

Varrick was a flop when it came out in 1973; too odd to be cool and just a little too fun to be badass. 

And hey, the digital trough isn't all bad: Charley Varrick is now streaming on Netflix, where it can finally be enjoyed as one of the weirdest action classics of all time. 

Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.