Drivers’ Cinema: Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)
The 1970s ushered in a slate of car chase films. Amongst the most famous are Smokey and the Bandit, Gone In 60 Seconds, and Vanishing Point, all covered here at Petrolicious and of course elsewhere. But there was also Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Based on the novel “The Chase” (later renamed “The Pursuit”) by Richard Unekis, 1974’s Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is directed by John Hough (best known for Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain) who delivers the fast paced tale of racing driver Larry Raydar (Peter Fonda) and his mechanic Deke Sommers (Adam Roarke), a small time racing duo who have big dreams of breaking into the professional NASCAR circuit.
Of course, big dreams require a fat wallet, so Larry and Deke concoct a supermarket heist, and plan to use the money to buy the racecar of their dreams. They execute their scheme perfectly, and without bloodshed, receiving $150,000 ransom for their troubles from the supermarket manager (Roddy McDowell in a cameo) by holding his wife and daughter hostage. However, the best laid plans have a funny way of going awry, and Larry and Deke’s escape takes a turn when Larry’s one night stand, Mary (Susan George), turns up in their getaway car, a 1966 Chevrolet Impala souped up by Deke. Unable to persuade her to get out, Larry and Deke reluctantly let Mary tag along for the ride.
Captain Franklin (Vic Morrow), an obsessed cop who won’t rest till he apprehends the fugitives, leads a hot pursuit of the [now] trio. He commands a procession of chase vehicles after Larry, Mary, and Deke, including a fleet of Dodge Polara police cars, a high-powered Police Interceptor, and a helicopter. Along the way, the trio ditch the Impala for what some might say is the real star of the film, a Sublime Green (almost yellow, actually) 1969 Dodge Charger R/T 440. Just to look at it is magnificent, and the Dodge Charger model was also featured in many films from the ‘70s including Bullitt and Vanishing Point, two of this film’s spiritual forebears.
Later, Larry pilots the vehicle through country roads into a walnut grove, with trees and foliage providing cover from Captain Franklin and his men, tracking them from above in the aforementioned helicopter. One chase leads to another, and bridges are jumped…which is impressive because these action scenes were filmed practically, without the benefit of modern postproduction editing or special effects.
The grove’s many entrances and exits make setting up roadblocks difficult, and for a while, cop and civilian cars are destroyed over-and-over. Don’t worry though—all the cops and bystanders (in the fashion of the times) extracate themselves dazed and confused, and without too much personal harm, from their wrecked vehicles. Larry and Mary spend much of the movie arguing (no wonder she was a one-night stand), and Deke, the third wheel, wonders how he got talked into this mess. However, the action rapidly rises to a crescendo when Larry, believing he’s outmaneuvered Captain Franklin and the police, pilots the Charger into a collision with a freight train. ‘The End’, much like it was in Vanishing Point three years earlier.
Yes, Mary is dirty and Larry is crazy (his driving more so). There’s no larger social issue or subtext, and no message (which can be a good thing). It’s a chase film, pure and [very] simple. But the premise of two down-and-out guys shooting for NASCAR stardom by pulling a heist, and a one-night stand entering the picture at the most inopportune time, is quirky and fun.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. It is short on plot and character development, the acting laughable at times. It was a period when Fonda, an icon of the ‘60s, was just acting for the money it seems, something not remedied until decades later. He has some of the film’s most iconic lines due to their incomprehensible absurdity. Yet, it’s worth seeing because Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is utterly devoted to automotive mayhem.
And remember, if you’re going to commit a crime, don’t drive a Dodge Charger. Anytime you drove one of those in a ‘70s film, things usually didn’t end too well.