One of Peter Fonda’s best-known films features him travelling across America in a motorcycle. “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (1974) is more of a cult feature, but also features Fonda behind the wheel of a different vehicle, albeit one with four wheels. The story is simple enough, chronicling the tale of criminals being chased by the police after committing a crime, but the ending packs a punch and the car stunts are outstanding to this day.
In fact the stunts are probably better than anything you see in the “Fast and Furious” franchise since in the 1970s director John Hough did not have the luxury of computer effects. For more praise about the stunts, watch Stuntman Mike’s speech in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.”
Fonda’s Larry is a NASCAR hopeful trying to commit the perfect crime to fund his dream career. Along with his mechanic and partner in crime Deke (Adam Roarke) he plans to rob a supermarket store by coercing the manager (Roddy McDowall). Deke breaks into the manager’s home early in the morning, ties up his wife and daughter, calls the manager, and tells him to hand over the contents of the safe to Larry or else. As a precaution Deke leaves a recording on the home phone to give the impression he is still in the house even though he and Larry are long gone.
A smartly executed plan, with just a tiny flaw: Larry’s one-night stand refuses to get out of the getaway car. Marry (Susan George) is pretty angry at being left at the hotel and refuses to leave the duo even though they have committed a major crime. If anything this seems like a fun time for her. Even if they threaten her or try to ditch her, Mary just won’t leave them, much to their initial annoyance.
So off they go, driving like a bat out of hell on the highway, sending police cruisers flying into rivers, driving in between 18-wheelers, and generally destroying everything that stands in their way. This draws the ire of the determined police captain Franklin (Vic Morrow). If Larry’s car is the Road Runner then Franklin is the coyote and he quickly realizes he is going to need a bigger rocket.
Watching Larry race across the country roads in a 1966 Chevrolet Impala and later in a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T 440 will pump up the adrenaline level of any car nut, but the banter between the three leads when they are not evading the cops is equally entertaining. Larry is one cocky S.O.B with incredible driving skills, but Mary is not easily impressed and always says or does the right thing to get on his nerves. One minute Larry wants to break every bone in her, the next he wants to resume what he was doing to her the night before.
Morally ambiguous, but very quotable and thrilling from start to finish, “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” is an old-school chase film that is way better than some of today’s more expensive movies. Featuring real cars with real drivers behind the wheels, and stunts edited in a way you can actually savour them, it’s a heck of a ride.
(“Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and is currently on Netflix.)