The car-chase movies of the '70s really only had one plot: Someone drives a muscle car really fast, hoping to avoid police cars, some of which end up driving into streams or ponds. But each movie found a vastly different way to tell that one story. Vanishing Point, the genre's real masterpiece, told it in mythic terms, as one man's beautiful but doomed struggle against limitation. Two-Lane Blacktop was an existential hipster reverie, more about vibe than anything. Smokey and the Bandit was the cheap-seats Walmart comedy version of the story. And then there was 1974's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, which starts out looking like a hippie-era romantic-comedy adventure, but turns out to be the nastiest specimen of them all.
You can learn a lot about an era from its B-movie stars, and Peter Fonda, with his gigantic loopy shark-grin and his perma-shag and the weird Aryan intensity that always seemed to be bubbling just under the surface, was the perfect guy for the moment the hippie dream died. He was an icon thanks to Easy Rider, of course—a terrible movie that sidestepped its way into the canon by flattering a whole generation's frustrations. And he would've been an icon anyway, because he looked the way he looked and gave off that "privileged, oversexed stoner" vibe. But Fonda was a B-movie lifer, too, from The Wild Angels to Race With the Devil to Futureworld all the way through to the first Ghost Rider and, like, Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day. And Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is a B-movie to the core.
In a lot of ways, Fonda's character here is a riff on his Easy Rider role. In that one, he was a criminal moving a shipment of cocaine, but he was more concerned, really, with driving fast and dropping acid and dying symbolically. In Dirty Mary, he's a criminal robbing a grocery store and trying to get away, but he's more concerned with driving fast and getting laid and pissing off cops. And he's a real asshole, too. In the movie's opening scenes, he and his partner pull off their robbery by holding the supermarket manager's wife and daughter at gunpoint. Fonda's partner, played by an intense Adam Roarke, stresses through the whole thing, sweating hard. But Fonda treats it like a joke, offhandedly telling the manager that one phone call and he won't be a family man anymore. When he leaves the supermarket with a bagful of cash, he doesn't do that crime-in-progress power-walk; he sort of amble-struts. Later on, he threatens his romantic lead that he'll "braid her tits," which, I mean, was that a thing people said in 1974? Because damn. The best part: Fonda isn't even a career criminal. He's a fucking NASCAR driver trying to raise enough money to "get some real speed." Clearly, they don't make NASCAR drivers like they used to.
The movie's story revolves around Fonda's one-night-stand conquest from the night before stowing away in his car during the robbery and refusing to leave. She's Susan George, fresh off of what must've been a harrowing experience playing Dustin Hoffman's wife in Straw Dogs. She's a charming live-wire presence here, even if she's totally unable to pass off her British accent as "American hick." Her character's a mess, too, desperate for attention and dumb enough to think that a dangerous criminal enterprise is a fun adventure. She and Fonda bicker and make up and bicker and make up, often because Fonda figures out that he needs her for something. But she gradually realizes that he's a terrible person—a nice dramatic thread that the movie never quite overplays.
Actually, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry has the weird distinction of having a cast made up entirely of terrible people, almost all of whom are rebels in one way or another. The cowboy cop chasing the robbers gets into a fight with his superior about wearing his hair long and not wearing his badge, but his real problem is that he's gung-ho enough to send a whole battalion of police cars after Fonda, even after they keep smashing into road signs or falling into creeks. (I can't imagine the cash Fonda stole would pay for half the police cars that got destroyed chasing him.) By the end of the movie, he's practically hijacked a police helicopter, yelling at the pilot to keep the chase up and forcing him to pull off impossible maneuvers, even as he's running out of fuel.
Of course, the car chases themselves are the best reason to watch the movie. Those things are the business. We see jumps and skids and crashes and explosions, and we know, the whole time, that real human stuntmen were executing all these moves and somehow not dying. That helicopter chase, with the actual pilot playing himself, is a total nail-biter, to the point where you can watch it for the third time, decades after it was filmed, and still think this guy is going to hit the ground at any moment. (Warning to parents watching this: If you're watching this while your kids are asleep anywhere in your house, the engine-revving noises will wake them up. Maybe dust off the headphones.)
Those chases are total drive-in fare, presented as something like good, clean fun. And the movie does everything it can to disguise itself as a carefree '70s movie, right down to the terrible folk-pop song that plays during the opening credits. But without giving anything away, it has a fucked up ending that rewrites everything that came before. I can't imagine how the drive-in audiences who originally flocked to the movie must've taken those final shots. Even watching them on a computer screen by yourself, they still have a powerful sting.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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