Deke (Adam Roarke) wakes Larry (Peter Fonda) from his slumber (and the arms of Susan George's Mary) in order to go rob the local supermarket (managed by the always wonderful and uncredited Roddy McDowell). However, Mary (only ever intended to be a one night stand from Larry's perspective) inserts herself into the situation, and the reluctant trio is off on the run from the police. Enter unorthodox cop, Captain Franklin (the late, great Vic Morrow), whose tracking skills and gruff demeanor are legendary in the local sheriff's department (run by The Thing From Another World's Kenneth Tobey). Armed with a map and a fairly intricate plan, Larry, Mary, and Deke tax each other's patience and frustrate the fuzz at every turn.
The opening credits to John Hough's Dirty Mary Crazy Larry roll over various shots of thoroughfares and even a shot of a moving train. Mostly these shots were taken by helicopter, but they all emphasize two things: roads and movement. These are the two key motifs running throughout the film, and their symbolism defines its characters. The road can mean various things (and I would argue that the more you think about them, the more movies you can find that actually fit the paradigm of a "Road Movie," whether any driving takes place at all or not). Sometimes it means freedom, and that's part of what it means for the three protagonists. Larry is a former Nascar driver, and Deke was his mechanic. For them, driving is living, and (ironically enough), they want to get back to the place where literally driving in a closed circuit is the closest they can get to ultimate sovereignty. For Mary, it's the freedom to move ahead with her life. For Franklin, the freedom of the road equals lawlessness, and it's his job to control the roads in his jurisdiction.
Additionally, the road personifies the human desire to run from our past. Larry has fallen from grace in the world of competitive driving. Deke let his alcoholism strip him of his pride and helped deprive Larry of his career. Mary is running from past entanglements with the law. Like sharks, then, they must keep moving forward, or they will die. As long as there is macadam under their tires and gas in the tank, they can escape from the bindings of yesterday. But is the constant need for movement less from a well-considered game plan with a verifiable goal in mind (though they say it is, we know it isn't true), than from a noisome desperation brought about through their own doing? They strain against shackles they have placed on themselves.
Deke, Larry, and Mary all cling to their dreams tenaciously. Each of them suffers a type of tunnelvision which only serves to keep them down and will eventually do them harm. Larry only cares about driving. If it doesn't have anything to do with cars or driving, he doesn't want to know from it. With the exception, of course, of sex, which he will also run out on if it means getting behind the wheel of a fast car. Deke seeks redemption from the bottle, but he goes about it in a circumscribed way and through an odd sort of austerity. He doesn't like deviations from the plan (Mary being the biggest one), and he tries to be a voice of reason throughout the film, though he knows his pleas fall on deaf ears. Mary has found what she believes is a kindred spirit in Larry, and she refuses to let him go. Even after she's treated poorly by both men, she's always quick to forgive them. Franklin also suffers from this type of outlook, though his "White Whale" is whatever perp he's tracking down. Like a pitbull, his grip is like iron once he's clamped down. But unlike our antiheroes, who scurry about the county's backroads and byways like mice in a maze, Franklin has a view of the whole maze from on high, and he will use this knowledge against his enemies.
As we all know, conflict is the cornerstone to story. Without it, there's no dramatic tension, and the results are usually lifeless and uninvolving. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is rife with conflict, but it's more telling about the title characters than anything else. Mary and Larry behave and treat each other like children. Almost the entirety of their dialogue to each other is taunts, barbs, or nitpicks. Disregarding for a moment, some of the more demoded colloquialisms, the fact that these two found each other is mystery, but that they were made for each other is undeniable. As with children, the two care only about their immediate wants (I want to play chicken, I want sex, I want a drink, etcetera). Like a boy pulling the hair of the girl he likes, Larry and Mary's running argument serves not to distance them from each other but to draw them together. This has been a staple of cinema for decades (just look at the old screwball comedies, if you don't believe me), and here the verbal sparring is as funny as it is fast-paced.
That said, Ms. George has a tendency to overplay her reactions, and her performance in many of these scenes gravitate toward the bug-eyed (in an obvious play for the much-coveted BEM Award). Granted, in quieter scenes she makes up for it with a fairly nuanced interpretation of Mary's vulnerabilities. Deke, by contrast, is quiet in his animosities, and Roarke truly nailed the art of the slow burn in this film. As someone who dwells on things (to his detriment, surely), it's interesting that he is the one who stands up for Mary late in the film. While everything is still a game to Larry, Deke realizes the value of Mary's friendship first. Morrow is the soul of "crotchety" (as he almost perpetually was in all his films), but his Franklin is also an outsider among the sheriff's department. He refuses to wear a badge, he lets his hair grow out, and he criticizes his boss and the bureaucracy that he feels stifles his ability to do his job. This makes it sort of odd that Franklin does not appear to identify with the three criminals he's pursuing. One possible explanation would be because he holds himself above everything else. His egotism is up there with the greats, and even though he can see the whole map from the air, it is only from the ground that the chase and its devastating effects can truly be appreciated.
MVT: Fonda and George share a real rapport in the film, and even when you feel like slapping them for the petulant children they are, you truly cannot help but be engaged with their criminal pursuits and root for them at the same time.
Make Or Break: Though the first shot of Mary is extremely brief, and she and Larry have already met, they still have a meet-cute at the robbery site that gives the film its overall feel. Make.
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