For whatever reason, audiences in the 1970s just loved good ol’ boy car chase movies featuring criminals – sorry, ‘outlaws’ – outdriving rednecked cops and sticking it to the man. From the sublime (Vanishing Point) to the ridiculous (Smokey and the Bandit), these films were cranked out en masse and all seemed to make money. Few of them really stand up too well to viewing now, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is no exception.
Certainly, in 1974, the film was a smash hit, and I can remember it turning up on re-release in cinemas for years afterwards before becoming what felt like a TV staple towards the end of the decade. The film always seemed to promise something it couldn’t deliver – I mean, with legendary sexpot Susan George starring as ‘Dirty Mary’, it had to be pretty raunchy, right? Yet I never managed to catch it on television, and it has had a surprisingly brief life on home video, this new edition the first to appear since 1987. So until now, I hadn’t had the chance to catch up with the film. Of course, I didn’t come to this expecting some sort of sex romp – I was well aware of what sort of film it was before sitting down to it – so I can’t blame that for my sense of… well, disappointment might be the wrong word, because that implies high expectations, and I certainly didn’t have those. But while I was expecting no masterpiece, I did think that the film would be more involving than it turned out to be. After all, there is some talent here – director John Hough had delivered one of the best 1970s Hammer films (Twins of Evil) and the impressive haunted house film Legend of Hell House, and aside from George, the cast includes Peter Fonda – then still Hollywood’s idea of the counter culture rebel – Vic Morrow, Adam Roarke and an uncredited Roddy McDowall. Yet the film is oddly unexciting for a movie packed with spills, thrills and car chases.
Fonda and Roarke are NASCAR wannabes Larry Rayder and Deke Sommers, who carry out a heist to finance their plans – Deke holding a wife and daughter hostage while Larry collects the cash from their supermarket boss husband / father (McDowell). Right away, it puts you in a difficult place with these two characters. This is no mere robbery, after all – it’s the kidnap and terrorisation of a woman and a child. I assume we are supposed to forget about the nastiness of this later on, but frankly, my sympathies were very much out of the window at this point. It’s not as though the pair have winning personalities to counter this initial image – Roarke does his best to soften his character later on, but Fonda sleepwalks his way through the film, showing the same level of enthusiasm and commitment as a bored child in a math class. Okay, he was never exactly first rate as an actor, but his performance here is amazingly disinterested.
The pair are joined in their getaway by Mary Coombs (George), a one-night stand of Larry’s who takes exception to him sneaking out of her place to carry out the robbery and is waiting in his car when her returns with the money. Why exactly she chooses to join them is never made clear – I assume for kicks. Despite his best efforts, Larry can’t get rid of her, and so she becomes a part of the team, leading to a fairly undeveloped love triangle that doesn’t convince for a moment. George and Fonda have zero chemistry, and she’s pretty bad in the role – with a dreadful orange tan, terrible American accent and no personality whatsover (despite her best efforts to compensate for a lack of character by mugging wildly and being very loud), this might be George’s worst ever performance (admittedly, I haven’t watched Tintorera in a while, so might well be wrong on that point) and even her natural sexiness doesn’t come across here.
Hot in pursuit is Vic Morrow as hard-bitten Captain Franklin, chasing the trio down in a helicopter and sending loads of police cars after them, as they zip through the various highways, dirt roads and side streets. The cops, of course, are no match for the souped up muscle cars that the gang drive, leading to several dramatic chases that inevitably end with the police crashing into signs, rivers or other vehicles. In the grand tradition of The A Team, no one seems to get killed or injured in these wrecks, presumably to secure a PG rating (laughably, the film was originally rated X in the UK).
Now, this should be entertaining road rage eye candy, but somehow it feels a little flat. Perhaps I’ve just seem too many high octane road race movies to be impressed by what happens here; perhaps Hough just wasn’t the man to shoot this sort of thing (Britain just doesn’t have a car chase film culture); or, more likely, it was simply that the characters are so lame that we can’t get gripped by the chase. We basically don’t care what happens.
That carries through to the end, which is, at least, suitably nihilistic and unexpected. It’s a very 1970s conclusion to the story, and feels apt – but it doesn’t shock in the way it might if we’d been more invested in what happens to the outlaw trio.
The thing is this – Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry isn’t dreadful. It’s entirely watchable. But you won’t be drawn into the story – it remains little more than eye-candy. Of course, if you are a huge fan of car crash cinema, this might well appeal more to you than it did to me. But it’s a long way from either Vanishing Point or Mad Max in terms of anti-establishment adventure or visceral auto excitement.