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Charley Varrick (1973) – Walter Matthau dissects himself from his career defining habit of playing grumpy charmers and instead turns in a close-to-the-chest performance as the title character in this heist piece from 1973.  Varrick, along with his wife and two accomplices, try to rob a small town bank and instead wind up botching the operation.  They instead get several parties killed, Varrick’s wife included, while accidentally romping off with a massive amount of mob money.  “Varrick” feels like a great grandfather of sorts to the contemporary classic “No Country for Old Men.”  Both involve an everyman character inadvertently winding up with money not belonging to them and getting a homicidal hitman on their tail because of it.  Joe Don Baker turns in a cool supporting role as the nonchalant killer assigned to locate Varrick and dispose of him.  John Vernon and Andy Robinson, both alumni of “Dirty Harry”, do good supporting work as well.  The Don Siegel directed movie has that unpretentious, no frills style that was common of the day and is by this viewer sorely missed.  It doesn’t go in for grand arcs, deep morals, cheap sentiment or crushing pretensions.  It simply is what it is and it does it very well.  A good find for fans of minor 70’s classics, heist cinema or Matthau.

Bigger Than Life (1956) – 50’s bound melodramas can be hard pills to swallow.  No cinematic reality feels more fabricated, alien and false than tales set against the overly idealized and romanticized world of the ‘good old days’.  Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” struggles with these “Leave it to Beaver” styled surroundings but manages to turn out something worthy by the time it’s over.  James Mason is a struggling schoolteacher who takes a second job to keep his family living the American dream.  But after working himself to the point of exhaustion he collapses and finds out that he’s on the verge of death.  A miracle drug, cortisone!, saves his life but his addiction to it turns him from Jekyll to Hyde.  Better yet, it’s like watching Gregory Peck turn into Robert Mitchum.  His pleasant, fatherly ways become laced with twisted morality and sick game playing.  He morphs into a hate charged tyrant who cannot stop pushing his family until he’s justifying their destruction in his own mind.  Ever reliable Mason may have never been better than he was here, slowly warping his calm, cool British charm into something monstrous and grotesque.  “Life” can’t escape all of its trappings and the dated nature of some of its messages, but it’s still relevant in surprising ways and worth sticking with till the end.

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