Counting down the 12 days until Christmas with the 12 greatest (I know they’re all great) Joe Don Baker films! 12 high points in the Texas born actor’s great stable of performances all the while celebrating the true spirit of Christmas along the way! So grab a bottle of Wild Turkey and prepare to have some Christmas spirit fed to you from the sweet supple teat of JDB!
Charley Varrick (1973)
By The BK Basement
What is it? Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) an ex-stunt pilot turned bank robber gets more than he bargained for after finding out the bank he just knocked off was a drop off point for the mafia and they’re coming looking for the $750,000 Varrick made off with.
What is Joe Don Baker Doing?: JDB is a mafia hired hit man tasked with tracking down Charley Varrick. Using all of his charm (slapping women in the face), wit (he tricks Varrick’s partner before deciding to just pummel the information he wants out of him) and strength (did I mention he beats some people up?) to find him!
Who’s in it besides Joe Don Baker?: Walter Matthau, Andrew Robinson (Scorpio from Dirty Harry!), Norman Fell and John Vernon (Dean Wormer!) Directed by Don Siegel.
Why is it on day 1?: It’s the time of year when we all gather together with loved ones and give thanks to the things we have. Forgetting our troubles and fatigue of our daily routines and come together to spend quality time with friends, family and good food. I would like to give thanks, thanks to the movie gods for still making it possible for a schmuck like me to wander into films like this. Don Siegel’s 1973 Charley Varrick, a film I had never heard of until I decided to have a Joe Don Baker marathon, lives somewhere in the cinematic world between Raising Arizona and Blood Simple. It is a mature dark comedy thriller making for a tonally wild ride. Charley Varrick is playful and deadly serious not only within the same scene, but within the same shot. It’s a perfect Coen Brothers movie before there were Coen Brothers.
Matthau shuffles his way through this twisting film in the way that only he can, his lackadaisical attitude sets the tone throughout the film and is one of his best performances. John Vernon arrives halfway through the film, replacing his usual authoritative shtick with a deceptively warm demeanor. Andrew Robinson also shows up as Matthau’s paranoid partner. Don Siegel’s pacing and camera work are some of his best, giving the film a slick veneer that is as playful as the plot.
While the film is fun, complex, and dark, the real treat of it is Joe Don Baker. This is the perfect film to kick off the 12 Days of JDB as it is entertaining as hell, and Joe Don Baker gets to play an incredibly fun character. As Molly, a hit man hired out of the basement of a Chinese restaurant by a rival mafia to recover the $750,000, Joe Don Baker walks the line between over the top comedy and down right scary. With a huge pipe and ten gallon hat JDB goes big Texas in Charley Varrick. His ‘Good ol’ Boy’ swagger allows him to be both a gentleman, and a total asshole at the same time. Joe Don Baker made a career out of playing large oafish characters with hearts of gold, Charley Varrick lets JDB go all out with his performance; pushing it far beyond the boundaries of camp, which fits right in with the rest of the film.
Baker’s portrayal of Molly is just as balanced as the rest of the film, pushing the limits of believability as far as they can go without comprising the integrity of the rest of the film. It’s playful and funny, but constantly reminds you of the consequences of dealing with the wrong people. JDB’s performance is so good and memorable that he almost bests Walter Matthau; he is slick and cool and seems plucked straight out of a good southern pulp crime novel or a Tarantino flick. This is one of the reasons why Joe Don Baker was able to make a career of being a oafish character actor, when he needed to get chuckles and smiles his light-hearted demeanor could get them instantly, but when asked to flex his acting chops on more complex material he could add just enough nuance to take a character to the next level.
Best Joe Don Baker moments:
- Joe Don Baker seduces a woman by slapping her hard across the face for no reason; her reaction isn’t one of shock or anger instead she smiles and takes him to her bedroom (oh masochism!).
- His awesome El Camino SS deserves a mention.
- The lodging that the mafia puts him is priceless.
- (SPOILER ALERT!) Joe Don Bakers extra crispy final appearance at the end of the film.