Now Playing: "Spock's Brain"
As the optimism and oplulence of the flower-power Sixties crumbled seemingly overnight into the dubiosity and paranoia of the Watergate-era Seventies, Hollywood’s concept of what constituted a hero underwent enormous change. The white-hat virtuousness typified by John Wayne was out. Our new “good guys” were often barely more scrupulous as the heavies. Sure, popular fiction had always had its share of anti-heroes--Robin Hood, for instance--but the new breed didn’t necessarily care who they robbed, and they certainly didn’t give the loot away.
Heroes didn’t get much more “anti” than in DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, which overcame a meager plot and wafer-thin characters to become one of 20th Century Fox’s leading moneymakers of 1974. Compared to today’s bloated action blockbusters, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY almost seems like an anti-movie. No visual effects, no attempts to homogenize or sugarcoat its characters, not even a musical score designed to slather emotional keywords over the storyline. The only music heard are songs played over the credits and source music emanating from a car radio.
Directed by John Hough, a British TV vet (THE AVENGERS) who made a truckload of money for Fox with 1973’s efficient shocker THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY also has the distinction of being shot 100% “real”. Not an inch of film was shot using process photography, special effects, undercranking or any other cinematic trick to make the car chases appear faster or more exciting. The supercharged automobiles and helicopters that squeal, burn, leap and smash their way through DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s high-octane story traveled at speed of 100 mph or more, and were often driven by the movie’s star, Peter Fonda.
Fonda, who graduated to become one of Hollywood’s most interesting character actors in films like ULEE'S GOLD (which earned him an Academy Award nomination) and THE LIMEY, was extremely popular at the time with young audiences, many of whom sported THE WILD ANGELS and EASY RIDER posters on their wall. His gift was projecting a uniquely narcissistic type of cool, a way of telling the world--and, more apropos, The Man--to screw off, while still maintaining the audience’s trust. Even when Fonda was playing a Grade-A jackass, his fans responded in droves.
Fonda plays Larry Rayder, a disillusioned NASCAR driver who teams up with his alcoholic mechanic, Deke (Adam Roarke, another graduate from AIP biker flicks), to rob a supermarket (Roddy McDowall plays the manager, unbilled) and outrace the cops to the border. You get the sense that, for Larry, the robbery isn’t so much about the dough, but about recapturing the exhilaration and danger he used to feel on the racetrack. They pull off a perfect heist, except for one thing: unwanted tag-along Mary (Susan George), Larry’s one-nighter who forces herself along on the escape simply because she has nothing better to do.
In pursuit of the trio is trooper Everett Franklin, an obsessive, relentless lawman portrayed by Vic Morrow, who was almost exclusively a television actor, but with the power and magnetism of a film star. His performance is DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s best, in that Franklin is just as anti-establishment in his manner and dress as the rebels he’s chasing. His boss calls him on the carpet for sporting long hair and sideburns and refusing to carry a gun and a badge. Franklin may be the only “redneck sheriff” of the era not to despise hippies; after all, in many ways, he’s one of them. But he does hate lawbreakers, and there seems to be very little he won’t do to capture one.
That’s all the plot Hough needs to get this movie going. More than half of the 92-minute running time is dedicated to the spectacular car chases and stunts that made DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY’s reputation as one of the all-time great drive-in flicks. The realization that the leading actors are actually driving the cars at eye-blurring speeds gives the action a level of verisimilitude lacking in today’s CGI-laden features. An unintentional side-effect results from the shots of Morrow inside a helicopter that’s chasing Larry’s cherry ’69 Dodge Charger. The chopper is flying down tree-lined roads literally inches from the roof of the Charger, and it’s impossible not to watch these scenes, as thrilling as they are, and not be reminded of the part a helicopter played in Morrow’s tragic death in 1982.
I’d be remiss in discussing DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY without mentioning the nihilistic ending, which has become one of the most famous “twists” in cult cinema history and definitely played a major role in the film’s everlasting popularity among car buffs and “heads” looking for the Next Big Thing in Existential Cinema. What is Hough trying to say? Who cares, man? The car stunts are far out.