by RICHARD WINTERS
During the ’70s car chase movies were all the rage, like Smoky and the Bandit, Convoy, Vanishing Point, and Two-Lane Blacktop, to name just a few. Most of these films followed a comedy-adventure blueprint closely resembling the politics of the time; the police were the befuddled authority figures, and those being chased symbolized the downtrodden masses looking to break free from the values and customs of yesteryear and find their own identities. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is pretty much the same as the rest with a few notable exceptions, the biggest being its very downbeat ending. The ending was quite talked about at the time and is one of the main reasons this film continues to have a strong cult following today.
The story is based on the novel by Richard Unekis called The Chase. It involves an out of work race car driver named Larry and his mechanic (Peter Fonda, Adam Roarke) who decide to rob a grocery story to make ends meet. Much to their dismay they are accompanied by a hooker named Mary (Susan George) and the three spend the rest of the film riding in Larry’s Dodge Charger with a powerful V-8 engine and avoiding the relentless pursuit of the police.
The screenplay follows the book pretty closely, but does make a few ill advised changes. One is that in the book the two lead characters were career criminals who robbed for a living. I thought this made more sense and gave the characters a little more grounding. I didn’t understand why a race car driver and his mechanic would suddenly be pushed to robbery, or what led them into their fix. The robbery is much too sophisticated for a pair of novices as they kidnap the store manager’s wife and daughter and then threaten to harm them unless the manager opens up the safe. They also rig his home phone up to a tape recorder device so every time he calls home he hears their voices and thinks they are still there when in fact they had already hit the road. Criminals who had done this all their lives would be brazen enough not only to come up with this idea, but to also pull it off. People with no background in robbery most likely would not. There is also no explanation as to why they chose this store and how they planned the whole thing out, which would have helped.
Another change that was made was the addition of the Mary character. In the book it was just the two men, which made it grittier. Although easy on the eyes the character serves no fundamental purpose to the story line. All she does is have very redundant arguments with Larry that quickly become tiring. I began to realize that these shouting matches were put in solely as filler material and it ends up getting inane.
I have liked Peter Fonda in other films, most notably Easy Rider, but I did not feel his laid back persona fit this part. Larry is indeed a potentially interesting character as he is a person who can only find solace when he is taking extreme risks and driving real fast, but Fonda seemed unable to bring out this edginess effectively. His incessant gum chewing also becomes really annoying.
Vic Morrow probably gives the film’s best performance as the sheriff. Normally the police are portrayed as bumbling idiots in this genre, but here they were a little more human. I liked the way that he was a bit of a non-conformist himself and the relentless way he pursued the trio.
I also liked the attempt by the filmmakers to put in more realistic elements to a car chase that are seldom shown in the movies. One particular scene involves a pick-up truck that has nothing to do with the chase pulling out and getting sideswiped by Larry’s car. For a minute the film becomes very somber as they think they may have killed the other driver, which is good. Too many chase films always show other drivers and pedestrians miraculously getting out of the way and never being hit or injured even though in reality a lot of them probably would be. The subject of seat belts also comes up, which is another pet peeve that I have with these types of films. The occupants of these cars are never shown wearing them and with the stunts that they do they would all end up injured and killed without them. They don’t wear them here either, but at least Larry does mention to Mary that she should put one on and there is also an amusing scene where a big yellow billboard stating “There is only one word for people that don’t wear seatbelts…STUPID,” which is shown briefly just before one of the out-of-control police cars goes careening through it.
Of course the best thing about the film and the one thing that has made this film so famous is the notorious ending, which is a downer for sure. If you consider this a spoiler then please don’t read any further.
However, the truth is when I first saw this film many years ago I already knew it was going to have a downbeat ending. It just made me more intrigued because I didn’t know how it would happen. Unless you count the film’s opening shot there is no foreshadowing and it happens very suddenly so that the victims end up not knowing what hit them, which is also very realistic. Personally I loved it and most other viewers seem to also. Too many chase movies have the good guys being able to escape one close call after another when in reality the odds will catch up with you sooner or later, and with this film that is what happens, which in its way is refreshing. The scene is captured well and features one of the best explosions I have seen and without any computerized special effects. I also liked the way the film ends very abruptly immediately after that.
Normally I argue against Hollywood remakes, but this is one instance where it would be a good thing. One of the main problems here is the film’s low-budget. Although I felt they captured the central California countryside nicely (it was filmed in and around Stockton) the indoor sets are quite bland and dull. A bigger budget, tighter script, and some flashy camera work could work wonders here. Too many times Hollywood seems driven to remake films that were already good the first time and only end up tarnishing the original instead of remaking films that didn’t quite work on the first run and trying to make them better.