Monday, November 21, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" (1974)

If "Easy Rider," "Vanishing Point" and "Two-Lane Blacktop" form the triumvirate of iconic counterculture road pictures of the late 1960s and early '70s, then "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" is the sellout poseur, tagging along in their wake with hollow mimicry.

Made in 1974 with a budget of $2 million -- extravagant compared to those other films -- it rode the popularity of Peter Fonda at its zenith, pairing him up with a hippy chickie blonde in a denim halter top (actually British actress Susan George, well concealing her accent but not wonky teeth).

The title and the posters of the comely couple, perched on top of their getaway car or running from a police helicopter, make it seem so exciting and even romantic: impetuous race car driver on the lam with beautiful petty thief. The combination made it a successful commercial hit.

Except there's a third character in the car with them the whole time, and he's actually the most interesting person in the movie.

But I guess "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Taciturn Deke" doesn't make for a very memorable title.

Played by Adam Raorke, Deke is the mechanic to Fonda's wheel man Larry, much like the clearly demarcated roles in "Two-Lane Blacktop." They have dreams of getting to the NASCAR circuit. Deke's already been there, but drank his way out. Larry has the talent and the requisite complete lack of fear. All they need is money for "real speed."

They steal $150,000 from a supermarket by Deke holding the wife and daughter of the manager (Roddy McDowall) captive at home while Larry saunters into his office for the cash out of the safe. They don't even have guns, or bother to wear masks/disguises, using a fancy phone voice message machine to make the manager think they've still got his family.

A couple of questions:
  • 150 grand is $732,000 in today's dollars. What the hell kind of grocery store keeps that kind of cash on hand?
  • If their scheme is successful and they make it big in NASCAR, wouldn't that mean Larry would at least get famous enough to be recognized as the perpetrator?
You could ask these sorts of questions all day long about the movie. Larry makes a terrible effort at being inconspicuous on the road, jumping his blue 1966 Chevy Impala off a tractor ramp right after the robbery, and otherwise tearing up the street wherever he goes. You get the sense of it's part of his impulsive nature and desire to be a show-off, but that doesn't make the repeated willful stupidity of his actions any easier to swallow.

Later Deke and Larry switch to another car they thought ahead to have ready. Except they apparently parked it 50 miles away in the middle of a small town. When they arrive to retrieve it, there's a large street market going on to draw a lot of attention. If that weren't enough, the other car is a bright yellow 1969 Dodge Charger that any half-blind cop could see coming a mile away.

Often, it seems like they're trying to get caught.

(The Charger's color was actually Citron Yella, which has a lot of green in it, and indeed one police officer describes it over the two-way radio as "light green." Interestingly, the technicians who developed the film thought the greenish tint was a mistake and incorrectly corrected it -- so the movie was always presented with the wrong color palette. It was finally fixed for its DVD release in 2005.)

Larry and Deke's relationship is fraught. They clearly respect each other's skills, but Deke resents Larry's gregarious recklessness while Larry sees Deke as a killjoy, often derisively addressing him as "Bunky." Deke is supposed to be much older (though the actors were really on three years apart in age) and world-weary. Neither ever really tries to order the other one around.

When Larry pulls one of his frequent just-for-the-hell-of-it maneuvers, like slaloming between two semis and earning a cracked windshield in the process, Deke just shakes his head and frets about the damage.

Mary shows up right after the robbery. Much like the Girl in "Two-Lane Blacktop," she squats in his car uninvited and gets sucked up into the action. As she herself says, she didn't really have anything better to do.

She's not a stranger, though: Larry just had a one night stand with her, and she's pissed about being dumped and seeks him out. How she found him, other than his rather ubiquitous-looking Chevy, is left a mystery.

The relationship of the trio gradually evolves as the miles go by. Mary initially finds Deke creepy -- we get the sense most people do -- but comes to resent Larry for making his disdain for her clear. She's a fiery ball of independence who secretly wants desperately to be needed by somebody. When her confrontation with Larry reaches a point of (mild) physical violence, it's Deke who comes to her defense.

The other major character is Captain Franklin, played by Vic Morrow. He's a surly state patrol officer who refuses to wear a badge or gun, talks back to his superior (Kenneth Tobey) and grows his hair out long  underneath his cowboy hat. But he's got serious law enforcement know-how, and leads the chase to catch the miscreants, eventually climbing into a helicopter to personally take on Larry's yellow Charger.

Soon Franklin figures out that the robbers have been monitoring his orders over the CB, and they start to have a running game of taunts and one-upsmanship. It's fun, for a little while.

Larry and company also get a (brief) challenge in the form of an aggressive young cop with a talent behind the wheel named Hank (played by Eugene Daniels, who could be Channing Tatum's dad for the eerie resemblance). Initially crashed by Larry, Hank gets himself a new souped-up police Interceptor and makes a go of it after the robbers flee into a labyrinth of walnut groves.

Director John Hough has a decent eye for the action scenes and car chases. He had a quirky career, mostly bouncing back and forth between horror films and family-friendly stuff for Disney, including both the "Witch Mountain" movies later in the '70s.

Based on the novel "The Chase" by Richard Unekis, which came out in 1963 at the dawn of the muscle car era, "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" helps mark the end of it. Big V-8 engines would soon go underground for awhile, so neither cops or robbers had them to command.

It would take until the "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball" movies for car chase flicks to become popular again, this time as escapist entertainment rather than commentary on America's competing appetites for freedom and law & order. "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" serves as something of a bridge between the two.

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