Movies We Love: Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)

You know what it means when a somebody like me gets off to a bad start? *dramatically chews gum* Not a goddamn thing.


Washed-up stock car driver Larry (Peter Fonda) and his equally washed-up mechanic Deke (Adam Roarke) slickly execute a grocery store heist, nabbing $150,000 cash in a paper sack. Their efforts to make a clean getaway are complicated when Mary (Susan George), Larry’s one-night-stand from the night before, decides to tag along. Much hilarity, peeling of tires and crunching of metal ensues.

Why We Love It

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is one of those rare ’70s drive-in B-movies that stands the test of time. Although the ’70s are fondly remembered as a golden age for American filmmaking, the decade probably saw the release of about 1,000 crappy exploitation films for every Easy Rider and Raging Bull.

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry could’ve have belonged to the former camp, but landed in the latter thanks to the passion, skill and talent of the freaks who crafted it.

F’rinstance One: Freak-in-chief Peter Fonda pours himself into the role of white-trash renegade Larry, inhabiting the part so comfortably that it seems like he’s just being himself. His performance is so effortless and un-self-concious, he makes it seem as if he’s not acting.

Obviously, that’s not the case. Compare Fonda’s Larry to his Wyatt in the aforementioned Easy Rider. They’re almost diametric opposites. Wyatt is a blissed-out noble savage. Larry is cocky, full of swagger and, maybe, a little malt liquor. He’s a sarcastic, be-mulleted nihilist with a penchant for hurling inventive and decidely ungentlemanly-like threats (Examples? How about “I’m gonna braid your tits!” or my personal favorite, “Every bone in her crotch. That’s what I’m gonna break.”).

F’rinstance Two: The aforementioned jugs and crotch belong to the titular character Mary, expertly played by British actor Susan George. You might recall George as the unfortunate wife of Dustin Hoffman — Amy — in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

George’s Mary seems at first blush like a variation of her Amy: Both characters are obnoxious, strong-willed and immature. Somehow George manages to give these two similar roles a different spin. George’s Mary feels more greasy and unwholesome than her Amy. Like Larry, Mary’s a cocky and conniving opportunist. As much as Larry and Mary hate to admit it, they’re a perfect match.

F’rinstance Three: British director John Hough might not be your typical first choice to helm a deep-fried, All-American guilty pleasure like DMCL. But somehow, he was the perfect choice.

Hough is a journeyman of many genres, ranging from horror (The Legend of Hell House and American Gothic) to kids fare (Escape to and Return from Witch Mountain.) Hough’s versatility is well-suited to DMCL, which is something of a multi-genre hybrid. The first act plays like a heist film, the second act like a buddy comedy/road movie, and the third act like a balls-to-the-wall chase thriller. Amazingly, Hough manages to shepherd these disparate elements into an organic whole.

In fact, if you’re like me, you might not appreciate how expertly Hough ties the film’s recurring themes together the first time you see it. Unlike many of its B-movie contemporaries, DMCL is woven through with enough subtleties to reward repeat viewing.

Moment We Fell In Love

Why do I love to watch DMCL over and over? While most of the film is above-average popcorn-munching fare, the movie seriously ups the ante when it shifts into the endgame.

The last 25 minutes or so take place in the Sierra Walnut Patch, a fabled 50-square-mile grove cris-crossed with narrow two-lane roads. It’s full of blind intersections (at least, they’re blind if you’re blasting through them at 100-plus mph), plenty of places to hide and multitudes of cracks to slip through.

It’s the setting where Larry, Mary and Deke play a bracing game of cat-and-mouse with the increasingly frustrated local redneck authorities. It’s a cargasm of destruction, with plenty of on- and off-road action, vehicles flipping, cars jumping backwards, and even a helicopter-versus-muscle car joust. Fuckin’ badass shit, y’all.

Final Thoughts

DMCL is the kind of film today’s Hollywood can’t produce. When a big-name star signs onto a populist action flick, it’s typically a glossy, big-budget affair. Here’s a movie starring Peter Fonda just about at the height of his fame, with a budget of $2 million. Even for its time, that wasn’t big money. Jaws, which would establish the mold for future Hollywood summer action flicks, was released the year before and cost $7 million to make. The freewheeling spirit of DMCL is being carried by indie filmmakers now.

Another reason DMCL fucking kicks ass (you’re gonna have to take my keyboard away if you want me to stop raving about this film) is its courageous ending. Without revealing the twist, let me assure you it’s the sort of jagged edge that would get polished to blandness in today’s risk-averse, test-screening-happy, studio culture.

Because Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is such a defiant middle-finger in the face of conformity, it’s gotta be one of those Movies We Love.

J.L. Sosa is a freelance writer, photographer and horror filmmaker. He's burdened with an irrational fear of spiders and clowns. He loves (in descending order of magnitude) his girlfriend, his pets and spinach.

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