Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A crazy road trip adventure!
What did I get? Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is a grubby countercultural classic for greasemonkeys, it seems, but don’t let that exalted description fool you: engineered for the bad-trip post-Manson generation, it’s now scarcely intelligible to anyone else. Offering more screeching tires than a half-season of The Dukes of Hazzard, the movie founders on the levels of plot, characterization, and theme. Some onlookers extol the chemistry between the eponymous duo, but to me it adds up to a bunch of aimless attitudinizing.
With a title so evocative the Beastie Boys worked it into the lyrics of “High Plains Drifter,” Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry could stand to be both dirtier and crazier. The movie opens with a heist and resolves into an escape: Larry and his stony-faced chum Deke abscond with the weekly payroll of a Seattle supermarket by briefly kidnapping the family of its proprietor; afterwards, the plan is to head south, switching cars at prearranged locales along the way. The imposition of Mary, Larry’s lay of the previous night, into the situation sorely slows down their progress but usefully adds incident. Confined to a souped-up Chevy for much of the movie, the trio bicker and improvise as they negotiate the various dragnets the law has imposed.
Fonda plays Larry, a former stock car racer with designs on someday dominating the NASCAR circuit, as a simpering fool who sees life as just another demolition derby, a viewpoint to which Deke, his more sensible mechanic, has obscure loyalties. Susan George’s Mary, whose status as a whore is constantly emphasized, is indistinguishable from a petulant child (with a British accent that comes and goes). The characters apparently choose their actions to generate an exciting ending, for lack of any better articulated reason. We are obliged to fill in the oblivion-seeking aspect to Mary and Larry’s arc, but they display so little wit or appeal that it’s difficult to credit them for it.
A slapdash B movie to the bone, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry seems entirely unaware of the thematic richness that might obtain in other contexts. The sheer pointlessness of their decision-making would be positively wrenching in a movie by Antonioni, while a director like John Avildsen might at least have transformed the material into a big fuck-you to the Man or something. Instead, all we get is proof that the audience of the day was prone to regard even these vacant wastrels as authentic antiheroes. In fact, it’s tempting to reconceptualize Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry as stealthy propaganda designed to showcase the worthless scoundrels that epitomize the counterculture.
The many rough-and-tumble car chases seem just a touch more consonant with 1970s television than 1970s cinema (indeed, footage from the movie’s final scene ended up in the opening credits of The Fall Guy). The various motorized vehicles almost constitute an additional character — if only by default. We’re meant to infer that Mary and Larry’s relationship has that special tingle; only that could explain Mary’s obstinate refusal to exit the dangerous situation, and much else.
Although not listed as a producer, Jack Nicholson did play a hand in putting Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry together, and he saw it strictly as a money grab. More astonishing is the gap separating Nicholson and Fonda a mere five years after Easy Rider. Nicholson had fearlessly fashioned himself into America’s most resonant actor, whereas Fonda was evidently content to play a scummy version of the Captain America dude.
The best performances in the movie are Roddy McDowall’s brief turn as the panic-stricken supermarket manager and Vic Morrow in the slot occupied by Ben Johnson in Sugarland Express and by Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Obviously appropriating Bonnie and Clyde wholesale, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry takes up the common ground occupied by the tonally very different Sugarland Express and The Getaway while ruthlessly paring away the interesting bits.
If nothing else, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry established the absolute outer limits of the antihero trend. As a free-spirited adventure, it has a certain scurrilous panache — which about exhausts its assets.
What here smacks of 1974? The apparent profitability of squirrelly vibes.
IMDB score: 6.5
My score: 3
Director: John Hough
Writers: Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santean
Starring: Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke, Kenneth Tobey, Eugene Daniels, Lynn Borden, Janear Hines, Elizabeth James, Adrianne Herman, T.J. Castronovo, James W. Gavin, Al Rossi, Roddy McDowall, Vic Morrow
IMDB synopsis: Larry and Deke are a small time car racing duo who rob a grocery store, and plan to use the proceeds to buy an expensive race car in order to win more races and break in to the professional NASCAR circuit. Their escape with the loot does not go as smoothly as planned when Larry’s one night stand, Mary, tags along for the ride. One step ahead of an obsessed Sheriff, they manage to evade several police cruisers, a high-performance police interceptor, and even a helicopter, in their 1969 Dodge Charger R/T. Almost…