It was recently brought to my attention by a buddy of mine that this blog, and my posts in particular, seemed to be fixated on the films of the 1970s. I found that I had no retort to this as it is completely true. What can I say? I love 70’s film. All that will change shortly, I promise to branch out –maybe I will even seek help; but right now, Exploitation week is in full swing. NOW CAN YOU DIG IT? I knew that you could! In my last post, I talked about Race with the Devil and the awesome nature of both the film and Warren Oates. Well Peter Fonda is in that too, and he kicks an unholy amount of B-movie ass as well, so lets take a moment to talk about his career, and in particular the high octane car chase drive in classic, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.
Peter Fonda has a career that has always struck me as interesting. Primarily an actor that made his mark in the low budget features of the late sixties and seventies, for some reason, Fonda never quite moved on from this glorious cinematic underground. This fact is more staggering considering he was a part of Easy Rider, which was not only a watershed moment for American cinema but also a film that became a historical document, capturing the zeitgeist of our nation’s youth in 1969, resulting in a film that would go on to have a tremendous impact on multiple generations of filmgoers and makers. The other two principle actors went on to bigger and better (this point is somewhat debatable) films. Jack Nicolson would morph into one of the most charismatic and celebrated actors of his (or any for that matter) generation and writer/director Dennis Hopper, despite drug and alcohol problems that would derail his career for the better part of a decade, would go on to make a lasting mark in cinema as an actor who could bring the crazy. On the flip side of the coin, you had Fonda who seemed to have a more laissez-faire attitude toward his legacy. For whatever the reason, he’s an actor that never seems to be totally committed to achieving the stardom of Nicolson and Hopper; in other words, his comfort zone was clearly defined from the get-go and those established boundaries would rarely be stretched. So while his Easy Rider co-stars went on to film high profile projects, Fonda stayed behind, seemingly to be forever attached to the B-movie roots that helped makeEasy Rider such a success. I, for one, am glad he did. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry not only represents a high point in Fonda’s post-Rider filmography, its also one of the best car chase movies ever put to celluloid; one in which viewers have the smell of exhaust burn their nostrils, feels the sensation of the Southern California wind whip through their hair, and the sound of muscle cars crashing into each other, that metal on metal sound ringing loud in their ears.
Fonda plays Larry, one half of a small time racing duo (Deke, his mechanic, is played by Adam Roarke) who, in order to pay for a better, faster car—one that could compete on the NASCAR circuit, decide to rob a local grocery store, then absconding afterward to Mexico with their new found riches. Larry complicates matters by deciding to sleep with a woman named Mary (Susan George) he meets the night before the robbery goes down and in turn, she complicates matters by deciding to tag along with the pair on their adventure. The stickup is a success and the trio hops into a sooped-up Dodge Charger to make their getaway. Unfortunately for our heroes, a cop named Everett Franklin (played by Vic Morrow) gives chase and he is determined to bring them to justice, dead or alive.
I know what you’re thinking. The story sounds slight, right? Well, that’s because it is. But the good news is that this doesn’t matter. While the premise may be indebted to Peckinpah’s The Getaway*, the real reason you want to watch this one is for the car chases. And boy, if they don’t earn their reputation! In particular, the last chase through the walnut groves stands out as a classic; Larry even gets to throw in a reference to Robert Mitchum’s earlier genre entry Thunder Road while he is evading authorities. If you love films that are devoid of the CGI that serves only to take the viewer out of the reality of the situation, high speed car chases that allow the actors to do their own driving, and that feature breathtaking stunts involving trains and helicopters**, then this movie is for you. And if you don’t like these things, we need to have a serious come-to-Jesus talk; one that may result in the suspension of your guy card.
*Originally, Howard Hawks had purchased the novel and thus the rights for a future film. Who was Hawks’ number one choice for Larry? Steve McQueen! Later on, a then unknown Sam Elliot would be considered for the part before Fonda took the role.
**This portion of the film is highly (and sadly) ironic as Vic Morrow is a passenger in the helicopter. He would later die in a 1982 helicopter accident while filming The Twilight Zone: The Movie.