If I was making a list of films of genius that not enough people have seen (and by golly, maybe I will make such a list: “Neglected Gems” … one of these days), this one would be high on that list. Walter Matthau is a crop duster and former barnstorming air show pilot who moonlights as a bank robber to make ends meet. The first scene is of a robbery that goes wrong, and his wife is killed. Worse, when he gets back to the trailer park where he lives, he finds that instead of the few grand he expected from this penny-ante bank, there is $750,000. He deduces that it’s Mafia casino money being laundered, and knows he’s in trouble. Even worse, his surviving partner, Harman (played by Andrew Robinson, who was the kidnapper in Dirty Harry, and is perhaps the best actor ever at playing a sniveling, whining coward) is so stupid you wonder how he has lived this long; I guess it’s because he’s always been a small-timer. Soon a Mafia assassin named Molly (no explanation given, that’s just his name), played brilliantly by Joe Don Baker, is after him. Can Charley outsmart him?
I can’t tell you much more without spoiling your pleasure at seeing just how smart Charley is, just how far ahead he has thought, just how he makes it all work. It is all a joy to watch, and Matthau, who I have always liked, has never been better.