Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

Directed by John Hough
Starring Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke

“What did I tell you? All you gotta be is willing to take it to the max.”

Based on an obscure novel called The Chase by Richard Unekis, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is about the birth of the muscle car and the ruckus it raised. Beginning in the mid 60's, car manufacturers began wedging V8 engines into smaller cars. The result were screaming hell-machines that could easily outrun police cars. Subsequently, for a certain breed of thrill-seeking youths, racing cops to the county  line became a popular pastime, and Hollywood noticed. From Vanishing Point to Smoky and the Bandit with dozens of films before, after, and between, muscle cars were all over the cinematic map, blowin' the doors off the fuzz from coast to coast. Crazy Larry takes the standard car chase formula, tosses in a counter-culture anti-hero and a toothy British beauty, and wraps it all up in a devastating finale that was sure to cause major word-of-mouth buzz. Although it was directed by a Brit (John Hough, who was clearly on a roll, having just bashed out Legend of Hell House and the incredible Twins of Evil), Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was a quintessentially American tale, perfectly capturing the twilight days of the all-American road warrior before the gas crisis crippled V8 outlaws like Larry for good.

Over the credits, a downer-folk tune called Time (Is Such a Funny Thing) by Marjorie McCoy. Sounds like trouble from the get-go.

Deke and Larry are a couple of Nascar-wannabes-slash-thieves. Larry (Peter Fonda) is the cool-as-ice driver. Deke (Adam Roarke, RIP) is the tightly-wound mechanic. When the film opens, Larry has just spent a night of what we can only assume was unbridled passion with local floozy Mary (Susan George). He sneaks out while she's still asleep and gets picked up by Deke. She spots him as he drives off. Something tells me that won't be the last Larry sees of 'ol dirty Mary.

The boys have got a heist to get to. They drive into town in awkward silence, and then split up.

Deke home-invades some lady, yanks her right from her shower and tells her to call her husband George (Roddy McDowell) and demand the money, or he's gonna ice her and her kid. George runs a grocery store, and it's armored truck day. Larry's waiting outside of the store waiting for Deke to call and give him the heads-up. When he gets it, Larry saunters right into George's office to fetch the cash from the safe. But George doesn't want to open the safe. Who's this fucker think he's dealing with?

Larry calls Deke back up and gives him the go-ahead to lay some muscle on the broad and her kid.
What can Roddy do? He gives Larry the dough. Larry splits, but runs into a slight problem when he gets outside – Mary found him, and she's got the keys to his car.

He's not in the mood to argue, so he just lets her tag along. He picks up Deke, who left mom and the kid tied up and squirming on the couch. He's not all that happy to see Mary either. I think that's probably a familiar pattern in her life.

And so, off they go, flush with cash, on a wild new adventure.

One problem. As they zoom down the highway, they turn on their police scanner and find out the cops are on them. And not just any cops, either. They've got Capt. Franklin (Vic Morrow, RIP) on their trail. And he's kind of a bad-ass. A rogue. He even refuses to wear a badge or a gun! Larry and Deke are listening to their scanner, so they know the noose is tightening on 'em. Luckily, Larry's not the type to worry.
“Ok, so we're off to a bad start,” he says. “You know what a bad start means with a guy like me? Not a goddamn thing.”
He's making pretty good time, too, until Mary goes bananas and bites Larry, which causes him to lose contol of the Chevy and crash into a barn. Larry tells Mary if she ever does something like that again, he's gonna braid her tits. Ouch!

The gang puts their petty squabbles on hold to fix the car, and once the wheels are back in operation, they do the sensible thing and ditch Mary. However, a few miles down the road, they realize she absconded with their map. And they need it. No GPS in '74.  Larry says he's gonna “break every bone in her crotch”, so they speed back to the general store where they left her. She's still there, sucking on a popsicle. They pick her up. The gang's back together!

And then the chase really begins. Larry's got to shake a cop car and a helicopter, so he jumps over a bridge! They barely make it and Mary yells at him for making a “Flash maneuver”. But that's his specialty, baby!

Of course, things are starting to get a little sticky for our heroes, so they decide to get rid of the Charger and get some new wheels.Luckily they have a sweet stashed at a dusty swap meet. All they have to do is figure out how to get in and out with a million yokels milling about. Mary almost blows the deal when she steals a gizmo from a crusty redneck, but they manage to peel out of there, taking a cop's car door with them.

The cops set up a roadblock, which is what you do in these situations. Also, Capn' Franklin figured out that the fellas have a scanner in their car. And he's got a message for 'em. He calls them clowns and insults Larry's driving, figuring it'll make him angry enough to respond on the two-way radio. And he is, but Deke convinces him to keep his mouth shut. For the moment. And then Deke comes up with a clever way to buy them some time: he gets Mary to pretend she's a police dispatcher. Zing!

So then they run a bunch more cop cars off the road and they finally get to the stretch of the highway where they know the law can't catch them. It is at this point when Larry decides to get on the two-way and confront Franklin.

As Bugs Bunny would say, surely you realize, this means war.

So then they smash into a pick-up truck and almost kill a guy, but what the hell, that's racin'. They pull over to fix their car and Franklin gets on the radio to remind Mary she's on parole. One of the goons back at the swap meet tipped off the cops. Naturally, this does not sit well with Larry, so he knocks her down.

And suddenly, out of nowhere, grumpy ol' Deke get chivalrous. Turns out he's not a bad guy after all, just an ex-drunk looking for a break.

He gives Mary a little pep talk, and then Larry and Deke shakes hands, and they haul ass out of there. Hey, maybe these crazy kids are gonna make it after all!

Maybe. But then again, maybe not. I will say this much: if you like nihilistic 70's endings, they don't get much more nihilistic then this.

Peter Fonda was so cool at this point that line between actor and character is completely erased. In fact, the only reason we know this all didn't really happen is because Fonda's still around. Although with all his recent right-wing ranting, it's clear that the Easy Rider guy is long-gone. Anyway, there are some really interesting stylistic flourishes here and there - most people don't even notice that there's no music in the entire film, until you point it out -  the rampant vehicular abuse is particularly punishing, the ending is amazing, Susan George is alternately alluring and annoying, and the whole affair moves with all the urgency you'd expect on a heist-gone-wrong. It's a classic piece of American drive-in cinema. It practically defines that era and style of film making. Even if you were born too late to have ever set wheels in one of those outdoor shrines to sex, speed, and savagery, you'll feel like you did after watching this movie.

- Ken McIntyre 


  1. This was on TV when I was 9 (1978), can't imagine why my mom let me watch it. I loved it, though, made a big impression on me. Thought Peter Fonda was hot and Susan George the most beautiful girl ever - I wanted to be her! Saw her earlier films later on and was surprised to find out she was British. I should watch it again!

  2. She's secretly British. They're very sneaky that way.


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