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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Friday, August 19, 2005
Watch Out For Snakes
DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY was one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest moneymakers of 1974. Peter Fonda, already a counterculture icon from the biker films THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER, starred as a rebellious holdup man racing an army of cops to the border in his souped-up ‘69 Dodge Charger, burning rubber and breaking laws all the way. Deftly directed by John Hough, who went on to make two successful WITCH MOUNTAIN films for Disney, “DIRTY CRAZY” (as Fonda calls it in his interview on the Anchor Bay DVD) was an unpretentious, gear-crunching car-chase movie that cleaned up in drive-in theaters all across the country.

Needless to say, the suits at Fox were eager to find another drive-in flick for Fonda, preferably one that could stick him behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Along came writers Wes Bishop and Lee Frost, who had made names from themselves during the 1960’s as makers of “roughies”--basically softcore sex films with violent overtones--but had since moved towards more mainstream exploitation fare, most notably THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, a ridiculous melding of mad-scientist and car-crash genres that starred Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland (THE LOST WEEKEND) as a wealthy, terminally ill bigot whose head is transplanted onto the shoulder of a black convict played by former L.A. Ram Rosey Grier. Their script, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, was a similarly structured mixture of horror and action, and Fox lured Fonda to the film by hiring as his co-star the great character actor Warren Oates. Fonda and Oates were good friends, having worked together on Fonda’s directorial debut, 1971’s THE HIRED HAND.

Fonda and Oates play Roger and Frank, a couple of motocross racers traveling across Texas in a huge motor home, accompanied by their wives, Kelly (Lara Parker) and Alice (Loretta Swit, then starring on M*A*S*H). Their bucolic vacation is interrupted during its first night, when the two men witness a Satanic ritual occurring near their campsite. They’re shocked to see a masked man, surrounded by chanting acolytes, sacrifice a nude woman, and are forced to go on the run when the devil worshippers discover their presence.

This leads to the film’s first of several suspenseful scenes, as the panicky campers get their RV stuck in a mudhole trying to escape and struggle to dig their way clear as crazed men in white robes chase after them on foot. The vacationers head straight to the local sheriff (R.G. Armstrong), who pooh-poohs the notion of Satan worshippers in his community, even when confronted with the bloody scene of the crime. And no wonder, since it appears that the sheriff--and nearly everyone else the travelers meet along their dusty route--is one of them.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL was directed by Jack Starrett, a solid action director perhaps better known as a character actor who specialized in tough guys (his most prominent role is that of the cruel deputy Galt who brutalizes Sylvester Stallone in FIRST BLOOD). Starrett was a late-in-the-game replacement for Lee Frost, when Fox became disenchanted by the original director’s first two weeks of footage. Starrett’s CLEOPATRA JONES and SLAUGHTER were major blaxploitation hits, and his brilliant crime drama THE GRAVY TRAIN, from a screenplay co-written by Terrence Malick (THE THIN RED LINE), remains sadly unavailable on home video in any format.

Starrett’s approach to RACE WITH THE DEVIL is a disquieting one, interjecting post-Watergate paranoia into a slam-bang action movie loaded with fantastic stunts. Texture is added by the cool dichotomy between the victims, couched in a 35-foot RV armed with the latest creature comforts, and their pursuers, primitive zealots able to scare the bejeezus out of them through their faceless omnipresence.

Adding to the suspense are Fonda’s and Oates’ Everymen portrayals. We know Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds could have kicked those Satan worshippers back to San Antone with their eyes closed, but using “regular guys” like Fonda and Oates puts the audience into their shoes and brings the horror closer to home. It also helps that Starrett shoots the action without the use of process shots or trick photography, which makes the danger look more realistic; Fonda even battles a real rattlesnake at one point!

Like DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, RACE WITH THE DEVIL is often remembered today for its similarly downbeat ending, which isn’t the most logical way to go, but is unquestionably vivid. It was also a huge hit, cementing Fonda’s status as one of the most dependable B-level leading men of the 1970’s.

Posted by Marty at 5:59 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, August 19, 2005 5:59 PM CDT
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