Review by Stephen Snart
Posted on 05 March 2008
Source 20th Century Fox 35mm print
John Hough’s largely forgotten car chase pageant from 1974, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, received an unexpected resurgence of interest this past April as one of the many pop culture products hawked in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, his half of the Grindhouse double feature co-created with Robert Rodriguez. In addition to his characters mentioning Hough’s film by name, Tarantino pays visual homage by shooting his climactic car chase on the same location as the conclusion of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. But Death Proof isn’t the first time Tarantino has vocalized his adoration for the film; he also included an excerpt from it on a background television in Jackie Brown, and later selected it as a feature in the first Quentin Tarantino Film Festival in Austin, Texas in 1997.
With all of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry’s sensationalist car crashes, nihilistic attitudes and cruelly comic dialogue, it’s easy to see why the film would appeal to Tarantino. It even features a line of dialogue in which the lead character makes the kind of stunt-preceding pop culture reference that surely spurred Tarantino’s scripting career (“Remember Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road? I’m gonna powder his face.”). But aside from his repeated endorsements, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry has fallen by the wayside, even within the canon of American crash-and-burn road movies that were so prevalent in the ’70s and ’80s, a time when even James Bond got into the mix with Live and Let Die’s drawn-out chase through the dirt paths and back roads of Louisiana.
While Dirty Mary Crazy Larry sits on the outskirts of the 1970s pursuit road movie canon, its contemporaries, Vanishing Pointand Two-Lane Blacktop, have received recent validation through academic scrutiny (Jason Wood’s 100 Road Movies devotes entries to both films, but nary a mention of Dirty Mary throughout) and, for the latter film, a Criterion Collection reissue. Although Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was a considerable commercial success upon its initial release, it has not developed the enduring reputation of its kin.
The film stars Peter Fonda and Susan George in the titular roles as two aimless Southerners who – with the help of Larry’s mechanic Deke – rob a local supermarket for $150,000 and proceed to hightail it across America’s heartland with a motorcade of less vehicularly skilled troopers trailing in their skid marks. Very little motivation is given for their heist – a few words are mumbled about Larry and Deke needing the money to integrate themselves into professional racing – and no specific destination for their flight is mentioned either. But plot logistics are the last concerns of the filmmakers; attention is focused primarily on automotive acrobatics, and since the film was made before the advent of CGI, every stunt is achieved practically, and thus spectacularly.
Even though some of the excuses for stunts stretch credibility (Mary biting Larry’s shoulder and causing him to careen of the road) and others are downright arbitrary (Larry’s perverse recklessness certainly justifies the qualifier “Crazy”), the visceral sensation of the practicality of the stunts is outstanding. This sensation is achieved early on when Larry – without reason – decides to squeeze between two oncoming big rigs and the camera captures their car’s windshield cracking as it grazes the side of the truck to their left. The shot establishes an ethos that remains throughout: not only are the characters reckless, the filmmakers are too.
The wild behavior underlies that this film could not have been made in adherence to today’s health and safety regulations. The sensation that the cars are actually driving at an intense speed is conveyed by the sickening bobbing of the camera as the cameraman tries to keep the stars’ faces in frame while shooting inside the pulsating car. The verity of the stunts reaches its most jaw-dropping near the film’s conclusion, in which an in-pursuit helicopter flies above the gang’s Dodge Charger and the proximity between the two vehicles – with the actual actors still identifiable inside – is truly astonishing. It’s beyond comprehension to think of such a shot being achieved practically by today’s standards, and that’s what makes it worth watching. Death Proof, and in a similar sense the Bourne movies, offer valiant commitments to practicality but the prevalence of CGI manipulation in the medium makes the achievement of any purely real world stunts automatically suspect.
Sadly, these moments of outstanding spectacle are often undercut by inconsistency in continuity and an occasional incongruity between shot sequence and location. The downright nasty characters also have a detrimental effect on the film. Even though the title invokes Bonnie and Clyde, there is none of the amorousness or amiability of those or other popular lovers-on-the-run characters (Badlands, Kalifornia) evidenced in Larry and Mary. Their relationship is based on pure animosity and disrespect. Larry frequently chides Mary for her promiscuous past, dubbing her “supercrotch” and dishing out the kind of sexual organ-specific threat you rarely expect to hear (“I’m gonna braid your tits.”).
Fonda’s flippant malevolence would be scary if the film made him seem more like a character and less like a walking amalgam of self-centered cruelty. Deke, the most underdeveloped of the three, is frustrating in his inconsistency. The film opens with him cold and unforgiving, with a hint of rapist potential as he gags and ties the supermarket manager’s wife and daughter, but he is later depicted as passive and compassionate to Mary. Given that the film takes place over the course of a few hours, such changes of heart are highly suspect. Even though not much is made of the characters, the performers are still game, and not just because of their remarkable ability to deliver dialogue while driving at ridiculous speeds. In particular, British actress Susan George’s commitment to playing a beautiful but dim-witted tramp is so convincing that if you haven’t seen Straw Dogs, you might assume the actress is really the progenitor of Jessica Simpson.
What the film skimps on in terms of character development and logic, it makes up for in its devotion to spectacular automobile mayhem. In the end there isn’t much left to ponder about Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (which is why it has been forgotten in the mix of many other Peter Fonda road flicks), but it can’t be accused of pretending to be anything other than a showcase of car chase lunacy. The film’s prerogative is spelled out explicitly when a mechanic apologizes to a state trooper for not having had time to install sirens or lights to a high-speed vehicle, and the trooper instantly responds, “All I care about is what you’ve got under that hood.” The mechanic revs the engine and the trooper just closes his eyes and listens in ecstasy.