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Dirty Mary Crazy Larry

Part of the grand tradition of 1970s cross-country car chase films, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) offers a novel twist thanks to a plot revolving around not a lone racer against the law but an antisocial romantic couple, in this case robbers aspiring to become NASCAR stars. That twist made this 1974 feature stand out at the time opposite such cinematic cousins as Vanishing Point (1971), Gone in Sixty Seconds, The Sugarland Express (both also 1974), and Race with the Devil (1975).

However, the greatest influence on this film can easily be spotted thanks to its leading man, Peter Fonda, who became a major star five years earlier with the release of Easy Rider (1969). That trendsetting, counterculture hit also centered on a pair of young criminals traversing the country, and its unorthodox plot twists had a major impact on this film as well. (To say any more would ruin it for the uninitiated, but the parallels should be obvious by the time the closing credits come up.) No stranger to the open road, Fonda (a member of the famous acting clan as son of Henry and brother of Jane) had become a drive-in staple thanks to roles in such Roger Corman/AIP productions as The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967), though his career stagnated briefly in the early 1970s. The grassroots success of Dirty Mary put him back on the map thanks to solid distribution from Twentieth Century Fox, who was attempting to cash in on their earlier success with Vanishing Point. The ploy worked, with Fonda returning to the studio the following year for the more overtly supernatural road-themed antics of Race with the Devil, with a quick stop off in between for Peter Collinson's unjustly neglected action film Open Season (1974). The rest of the decade was spent comfortably in further drive-in films like Futureworld , Fighting Mad (both 1976), and Wanda Nevada (1979), though the subsequent two decades proved far less flattering and paved the way for his eventual critical comeback with Ulee's Gold in 1997.

One of the more volatile and fearless actresses of her era, female lead Susan George got her start as an actress at the age of 12 and was acting in features long before she was out of her teens, including a prominent role in Michael Reeves' cult film The Sorcerers (1967). Her big break came the following year with the acclaimed drama Up the Junction, followed by solid roles in The Looking Glass War (1969), Lola (1970), and Pete Walker's Die Screaming, Marianne (1971). However, her first major international recognition came with Sam Peckinpah's highly controversial Straw Dogs in 1971, whose central sexual assault scene established George's willingness to go places few of her other peers would have dared. However, after the success of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry her cinematic nerve ultimately went a step too far for some viewers with her turn as a duplicitous Southern belle in the following year's Mandingo, whose interracial love scenes made it a very hot topic in some territories. The film was a major moneymaker all the same, but the rest of her career was far more erratic; however, she did have a few additional highlights including A Small Town in Texas (1976), the action favorite Enter the Ninja (1981), and the all-star killer black mamba epic Venom (1981). She continues to work primarily in television, dividing her interest with raising Arabian horses (a passion she shared with her late husband, actor Simon MacCorkindale). Leading the charge on the production was director John Hough, a London-born filmmaker who cut his teeth on television productions like The Avengers and The Champions. After moving to feature films with the solid 1970 thriller Eyewitness (his first teaming with Susan George) and one of the best latter-day Hammer films, Twins of Evil (1971), he proved his mettle at Fox by turning the 1973 horror programmer The Legend of Hell House into a major success. After this film he made the unexpected move to Walt Disney Pictures, for whom he worked on and off again for the next few years on Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and its sequel, Return from Witch Mountain (1978), as well as the troubled but fondly-remembered The Watcher in the Woods (1980). He also stepped away from Disney to helm the Sophia Loren / John Cassavetes crime film Brass Target in 1978 and a far less savory reunion project with Cassavetes, the horror outing The Incubus, in 1982. He and Susan George reunited once again in 1984 for "Czech Mate," an above-average episode of the short-lived but memorable TV series Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, which appropriately wound up on American shores as Fox Mystery Theater.

Based on a novel by Richard Unekis entitled The Chase, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was first adapted into screenplay form by Leigh Chapman under the title Pursuit in 1972. A former TV writer on such shows as Burke's Law and The Wild Wild West, Chapman went through several drafts over the next year with additional input (both credited and uncredited) from others like producer James H. Nicholson and Antonio Santean. The end result cemented the stardom not only of its two leads but of their vehicle, a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, which quickly entered the pantheon of classic movie cars and made it as much of a fan favorite today as when it first burned rubber across movie screens in the mid-'70s.

by Nathaniel Thompson



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