South by Southwest: Charley Varrick

One of the starkest challenges faced by the auteurists in late sixties and early seventies was that many of their idols were dead or sidelined. Among those still working, their films looked increasingly, aggressively irrelevant—in the least, very shaky ground for proclaiming a given director an axiom of cinema. You might read Greg Ford championing Hawks’s Rio Lobo as “something entirely new” or Tim Hunter—in the Harvard Crimson(!)—declaring A Countess from Hong Kong the finest movie that Chaplin had ever made, but these were minority voices of enthusiasm in a youth-baiting media landscape that demonstrated considerable apathy towards the last gasps of the Hollywood veterans.

In some sense, that apathy was earned. A film like Ford’s 7 Women (acclaimed by Andrew Sarris and awarded the highest rating by a sizable number of Sight and Sound contributors) was clearly and actively out of step with its cultural moment—resurrecting forms of melodrama, ethnic masquerade, and studio-bound choreography that can only be described as reactionary. For those who admired Ford for his ability to sketch thorough examinations of American history and culture in popular terms, major stars and the baggage wrapped up in them very much part of the equation, 7 Women looked like an obvious diminution and retreat. (On the other hand, 7 Women remains notable today for its confused but obviously sincere account of sexual upheaval; if it was an irrelevant film for 1966, it at least had the good sense to make its irrelevance central and bewilderingly felt.)