I’m ready to unload.
Although it’s considered a “cult” movie today, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry outgrossed Easy Rider and The Poseidon Adventure at the time of its release, and is a prime example of the 1970s “car chase” movie. Now, Mary and Larry are speeding recklessly onto a long-awaited DVD, with Anchor Bay Entertainment providing the juice under the hood.
Larry (Peter Fonda, The Trip), a washed-up race car driver, and his mechanic Deke (Adam Rourke, Frogs) have a plan to rob a grocery store and outrun the cops to freedom. They also have to deal with Mary (Susan George, Straw Dogs), who spent the previous night with Larry, and now insists on tagging along for the ride. As our troublesome threesome grabs the cash and tears up the road in their muscle car, they’re pursued by a rebellious cop (Vic Morrow, The Take) who’s willing to break every rule in the book to take them down.
It all leads to a fast-driving, high-flying chase through the back roads of California, with no end in sight. Or is there?
The “car chase” movies of the 1970s would appear to be a limited genre. After all, how many different plots can be built around cool cars smashing into each other? Many of these films, though, carry underneath them themes of freedom and rebellion. The hero of any given car chase movie is usually a rebel—not necessarily a bad guy, but someone nonetheless on the run from the cops. Being on the run also means the open road, and with that comes a sense of exploration and open-endedness. There’s no way of knowing what’s around the next corner, and there’s no office or job to get back to. With nothing tying them down, our heroes are free to hit the highways and see where life takes them. All this is true for our protagonists in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, but only to a point.
The film is a generally light-hearted action romp, but it begins with deadly seriousness, as Larry and Deke force a store manager (Roddy McDowall, Planet of the Apes) to hand over his money by holding his wife and small daughter hostage. Adam Rourke is a frightening menace in these scenes, lording over the woman and the young girl. It isn’t until everyone hits the road that the tone shifts to a much lighter one. At one point, Larry comments that a race car driver never looks back at an accident that happens on the track behind him, and instead concentrates only on the finish line. This devil-may-care attitude exists throughout the film. The store manager and his terrified family are quickly forgotten. Even the money, it seems, is forgotten, as escape for escape’s sake seems to be the Larry’s only goal by the end. He continually refers to the entire theft and pursuit as a “race,” and does so with a cocky grin throughout. Our anti-establishment heroes never stop to think about the consequences of their actions. Instead, it’s all about thrills, and living for the moment.
As Larry, Peter Fonda gives one of his most Peter Fonda-ish performances. He’s all about the swagger and the attitude. Larry doesn’t care about anyone but himself, it seems, until Deke reveals a bit about his past, and how Larry has always been there for him. Mary is a little more complicated. At first, feminists will cringe at Susan George’s “blonde bimbo on a rampage” theatrics, but there is more going on with the character than we initially see. Mary is really a survivor, and she’s willing to do anything it takes to keep moving. If that means stowing away on a crime spree with two fast-driving daredevils, then that’s what she’ll do. Just as Larry and Deke are always one step ahead of the law, Mary keeps a step ahead of the boys, ensuring her a seat in their car. The sour-faced Deke appears to be the realist of the bunch, who keeps his eyes on the goal, and keeps Mary and Larry from getting too crazy for their own good. But, in time, his tough guy routine starts to fade, to the point where he even opens up to Mary near the end of the film. On the other side of the law, Vic Morrow chews all the scenery he can as the relentless cop after our young thieves. But it turns out that he is every bit the rebel they are. He refuses to wear his badge, or a uniform, and he doesn’t carry a gun. He says that as long as gets the job done, what does it matter? This makes him the perfect foil for Larry, since they have so much in common.
But enough talk about themes and character. You came here hoping to read about car chases. How are they? They are excellent. This is very much an “old school” chase movie, with no special effects and no second takes. Taking a cue from the H.B. Halicki school of filmmaking, Peter Fonda and the other actors all did their own driving. When the car screeches around a corner at 100 miles per hour or flies 60 feet into the air during a jump, you can be sure that’s Fonda at the wheel. Several car crashes and stunts were filmed on the fly, with real cars and little (or no) safety equipment. Not the smartest way to make a movie, but it makes every action scene feel like it’s really happening, as opposed to the fantastical approach taken by modern effects-driven blockbusters. Maybe it’s not as over the top as today’s action flicks, but knowing that it’s all real cars on real roads makes the excitement jaw-drop worthy.
And then there’s the ending. I’m not going to spoil it here; it’s just too good. It’s also highly ambiguous. Over the years, fans of the film have debated just what it means, with some loving how it ends and some hating it. I can’t in good conscience say any more, except that the ending truly vaults this film above just another action movie into something truly original. It’s the type of ending that you talk about all the way home when you first see it at the theater with your friends.
Anchor Bay’s treatment of the film is so good you’d think it was made last year, not 30 years ago. The picture has been meticulously cleaned, so there are almost no scratches or grain. Colors are bright and vivid, and blacks are solid. The 5.1 soundtrack will really get your heart pumping as the cars race by. There’s almost no music in the film, but a classic car’s roaring engine is already music to many people’s ears, and the cars sound simply thunderous on this disc.
This appropriately-named “Supercharger Edition” comes tricked out with bonus features, starting off with an interview-style commentary track with director John Hough (The Legend of Hell House), moderated by Anchor Bay DVD producer Perry Martin. Although it gets repetitive at times, it goes into detail about the low tech nature of the stunts, and provides a look at Hough’s and Fonda’s careers in general. Next up is a documentary with appearances by Hough, Fonda, and George. Some of the comments show how the participants’ enthusiasm for the film still exists today—although in his interview, Fonda commits the crime of just repeating the movie’s plot. Also included is an absolutely hilarious 1969 Dodge Charger commercial, and the film’s original trailers, TV spots, and radio spots. Some talent bios and a still gallery finish up the extras.
Whether Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is the definitive ’70s car chase movie is wide open for debate. But there’s no question that it’s a pleasant trip down memory lane—at over 100 miles per hour, of course.