A wild and crazy chase picture, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry embodies the muscle car era of the 1960s and the open road debauchery of the 1970s. Directed by John Hough, this 1974 flick is a cult classic of the drive-in movie set and for good reason. It has a loose, boozy feel throughout its 93 wild minutes and it never takes the foot off the gas pedal.
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is based on the 1963 Richard Unekis novel The Chase, which was subsequently later called Pursuit. The book sought to capitalize on the trend of putting massive engines in mid-sized vehicles, an advance that led opportunistic criminals to the ability to finally outrun the pesky police and their wimpy six-cylinders.
In the case of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, thieves Larry (Peter Fonda) and Deke (Adam Roarke) have designs on NASCAR success. They rob a supermarket with a rather sophisticated plan that includes a home invasion. When Larry is about to abscond with the cash, his one-night-stand Mary (Susan George) gets in the way and wants in on the fun.
Larry, Deke and Mary make off in a ’66 Impala and the fuzz are in hot pursuit. Captain Franklin (Vic Morrow) leads the pursuit, hoping to pin down the crooks in the rural environs. But Larry and Deke have it all planned out. They hope to elude the coppers in a walnut grove, using the opportunistic exits as a way out and switching cars halfway through to throw their tails off the scent.
The cars are half the story in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. The ’66 Impala is up first and Larry drives the daylights out of it. It’s a good thing he has his mechanic Deke with him, as he needs some patch-ups along the way. Later, the criminals switch to a ’69 Charger with an iconic paint job. The same vehicle type would be used later on in the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard.
Larry and Deke want to be a successful NASCAR team and they’re stealing from the supermarket to pay for the engine upgrades they’ll need to make it happen. Naturally this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the “sport,” but why would Larry and Deke let reality get in the way of a good pursuit?
The contrast between Larry and Deke is also worth mentioning. When we first meet the former, he’s pulling himself out of Mary’s bed and hoping to get on with his life. He’s clearly done this before. His focus is on winning the Big Race, wherever and whatever that might be, and he sees his escape from law enforcement as part of that. He must win. Pride is on the line.
Deke is the calmer sort in a way, although there are hints to demons in his past. He is rattled by a conversation with Larry in a bar. He orders a Coke and was apparently a bit of a drinker, but he’s a damn fine mechanic and that’s what matters now. Later, when Larry seems to lose it more than usual, he lets Mary slip into the backseat.
Mary, naturally, is the firecracker. She’s not quite played between the two lads, although something seems to be simmering there as the picture progresses. For the moment, she’s the one that won’t go away. She annoys Larry, who thinks he can just pick her up and plug her when his pistons are firing. She’s not having that. She wants in on the score and won’t just kiss off.
Another well-drawn character is Captain Franklin, played grittily by Morrow. His obsession with catching this trio of punks leads him down some dangerous roads, literally. He becomes single-minded about it, like Popeye Doyle, and he’s willing to drive a poor helicopter pilot out of his tree in the process. Franklin’s not like other cops, though. He does what he wants.
While it’s certainly not a classic, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is a downright diabolical chase from start to finish. It’s a well-oiled machine, one with a beginning and a locomotive of an ending that smashes and crashes with the best car-and-driver pictures. It’s hardly a chore to look at Susan George and Deke and Larry make for good company while that ol’ Marjorie McCoy tunes plays off into the sunset.