Friday, December 2, 2016


The 1970’s was a weird time for movies. Themes became darker, action became grittier, and characters became, well, jerks.  The flawed heroes (or saps) from Film Noir escaped into the mainstream.  Movies like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, GET CARTER, and THE GODFATHER challenged audiences to get behind some pretty unpleasant protagonists.  Jerks even ruled lightweight comedies (is there a single character in THE BAD NEWS BEARS that you wouldn’t want to pop with a baseball?).  And for drive-in movies, it was the jerkier the better.  Just look at 1974’s high octane reverse kidnapping flick, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY.

The Capsule:
Ex-racer Larry (Peter Fonda) and his creepy mechanic sidekick, Deke (Adam Roarke), think they are home free after a brazen and morally reprehensible supermarket hold-up.   Their smooth getaway is unexpectedly complicated when Mary (Susan George), Larry’s impulsive one-night-stand, decides to tag along.  Not because of the money, or because she particularly likes Larry, but because she doesn’t have anything better to do.  Try as they might Larry and Deke can’t get rid of her.  The volatile trio can’t help but cause chaos on the roads, and soon every cop in the county is on their tail.  Leading the chase is Captain Franklin (Vic Marrow), a maverick lawman who plays by his own rules, ‘cause that’s what cops did in the ‘70s.  If they can learn to work together, these outlaws might be able to out run, out think, and outlast the cops, if Larry doesn’t kill them all first.

The movie opens with a quiet, intense man in a black cap sneaking into a house.  He makes note of the little girl watching TV in the living room before heading to the bathroom.  He stares at the silhouette of a woman taking a shower for several seconds before tearing back the curtain and grabbing her.  He moves her into the living room (with a robe on, at least), and instructs her to call her husband (Roddy McDowell), the manager of a large supermarket.  If the manager gives the kidnapper’s partner all the money in the supermarket safe, no harm will come to his family.  When the husband hesitates, the kidnapper makes a move towards the kid.  The sound of his wife screaming makes the manager instantly relent and give up the money. 

If this was a Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen movie, this motherfucker would be the villain.  But psych, Deke is one of the heroes.  Perhaps not heroes, but you are clearly supposed to be rooting for them.  It’s one of those strong anti-establishment, stick-it-to-the-man kind of movies, with a wild free spirited vibe.  While not a straight up comedy, like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, there is a lot of humor infused into the story.  Larry and Deke are ripping off an insured business, without using violence, so everything is cool.  Never mind the horrible psychological trauma inflicted to a perfectly innocent family (you know poor Roddy McDowell is never going to recover, he’s so fragile when out of ape make-up). 

Ironically, Deke is actually the nicer of the two.  It’s Larry that is the real asshole.  Peter Fonda does give the character a certain roguish charm, but not enough to excuse his overall dickishness.  He only cares about himself; specifically himself behind the wheel.  He definitely doesn’t care anything about Mary, who he would happily ditch any chance he gets.  By the end of the movie, he’s developed a level of affection for her, but it’s obvious he wouldn’t lose any sleep if he never saw her again.  He also lightheartedly makes a few sexually violent threats behind her back, like “I’ll braid her tits.”  At the time those comments made him sound like a rascal, now they make him seem like he’s begging to be pepper sprayed. 

His closest connection is with Deke, but even that seems mostly out of necessity.  Larry needs a good mechanic, especially one who is so desperate and guilt-ridden that he has to put up with Larry’s bullshit.  Larry needles Deke every chance he gets about his alcoholism and how much he screwed up their racing career.  All Deke can do is take it in silence.  

The movie never addresses it directly, but there are subtle hints that Deke may have an unrequited love for Larry.  This explains his devotion and makes it that much worse.  The one time he stands up to Larry is when he comes to Mary’s defense after Larry pushes her.  They bond over their mutual attraction to a jerk that mistreats them.  He even suggests that she take off with him after they get away, leaving Larry to self-destruct on his own.  It’s a great character arc, and in that moment you almost forget about him terrorizing that naked woman and her child.

The wild card in the situation is Mary.  I think she’s supposed to represent a liberated gal who fearlessly goes after what she wants, even when she doesn’t know exactly what that is.  She is a lot like Laurie Bird’s free love hitchhiker from TWO LANE BLACKTOP, but with more of a ditzy Goldie Hawn vibe.   Susan George doesn’t play her as stupid, though.  Mary is worldly (or so she claims), reasonably well read, and matches Larry insult for insult.  She’s just not the best decision maker and a terrible judge of character.  At the time, the way she stubbornly inserts herself into a risky get-away with two men she barely knows would have been considered kooky, instead of, you know, blatantly suicidal.

She does excel at getting under Larry’s skin (or breaking it sometimes, she’s a biter).  After Larry does his first show-offy car jump of the movie, Mary looks unimpressed and says “average.”  Clearly, this was one of Immortan Joe’s favorite movies.

Vic Marrow does a good job with what could easily have been a stereotypical hayseed sheriff.  Franklin is obsessive and rude, but he isn’t malicious.  This is nothing personal, he’s trying to do his job.  And he is completely justified.  The guys he´s after are unquestionably despicable criminals (except Mary, who just has criminally poor judgment).  Plus, they are on the hook for destroying approximately eight police cars, several billboards, a pick-up, and a gas station.  They are a legitimate menace.  

Even though he is technically The Man, Franklin has a rebellious streak in him, too.  He refuses to wear a uniform or a gun, and gets into a fight with his stogy old superior, Donahue (Kenneth Tobey), who is more concerned with politics than catching the fugitives.  And of course, he plays by his own rules.  He’s kind of an older, pricklier, less muscle bound version of Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs character from THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS series.  I know you’re not supposed to want him to win, but I kind of did.  

I’ve been a fan of ‘70s grindhouse car chase movies since as long as I can remember.  Or, more specifically, since Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF.  DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY is one of the more famous ones, and a favorite of Tarantino, but surprisingly, the car action is pretty light.  There are a number of great stunts and a lot of general destruction, but much of it seems routine after all this time.  It’s not up to the level of VANISHING POINT.   

The chases convey a sense of speed, but they are mostly straightforward and over quickly.  Even Hanks (Eugene Daniels), the macho hick dipshit driving the souped up interceptor, only lasts a few minutes before getting clobbered by a telephone pole.  It is an inauspicious end for such an offensive loud mouth.  At least it follows with a scene where he, after boasting the entire movie about how he’s going to nail the suspects, has to get on the radio and admit he can no longer pursue.  I hope the girls at the dispatch got a good laugh out of that.

One stunt does stand out, though, particularly because it was done practically and was incredibly dangerous.  After Franklin has lost all of his cars, he bullies the helicopter pilot who has been flying him around to stop Larry’s bat-out-of-hell Dodge Charger.  He doesn’t specify how.  So the helicopter gets down side by side with Larry, zooming down a tree lined road, and tries to force his car off to the side.  The helicopter is going at full bore, no more than four feet off the ground at times, with a swerving car right beside it.  That is the kind of stunt no one would walk away from if anything went wrong.   It’s a marvel of old school stunt precision.  

Even though its ‘70s social sensibilities can be wince-inducing, and Larry is a colossal douche and Deke can be creepy as fuck, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY is still a fun flick.  Like a lot of the movies of the time, it is about yearning to be free.  These days, that message can be more attractive than ever.  The idea of hopping in a tricked out muscle car and outrunning the cops—without cameras at every intersection and streaming video and instant nationwide APBs (or whatever they are called today)—can be a thrill.  It could make you long for the simpler days.  But then you would have to deal with more assholes like Larry, so you’re probably better off where you are.

C Chaka

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