Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is the rare exploitation film whose few redeeming qualities make up for its numerous shortcomings. As a chase film, it has one thing that even Vanishing Point, that legendary pedal-to-the-floor-and-devil-may-care road film, simply does not: Peter Fonda in shades. The actor looks so good behind the wheel with a sneer on his lips that you almost don’t care that Dirty Mary is an inert series of conversations in and around cars. Less talk talk and more vroom vroom would have gone a long way here, but Fonda’s charisma is what really makes the film. Throw in some climactic stunt driving and a cataclysmically abrupt finale and, bam, you’ve got a cult gem.
By contrast, Race with the Devil, which stars Fonda and Warren Oates as a couple of squares who witness a Satanic cult murder a girl, is everything that Dirty Mary isn’t. Shout! Factory did Dirty Mary fans a huge favor by packaging that film with Race with the Devil, as the latter film only makes the former look infinitely better.
While Fonda does play the callous prick that we expect him to in Dirty Mary, in Race with the Devil he’s a mollified milquetoast who involuntarily tries his hand at badassery after devil worshippers threaten to cut his throat. Even when Fonda says, “Damn right,” in Race with the Devil, he sounds more like a rube playing at being Peter Fonda than Peter Fonda being Peter Fonda.
In Race with the Devil, Fonda stars as Roger, a competitive dirt biker who’s good but not great at what he does. Roger’s handler, Frank (Oates), and his wife, Alice (Loretta Swit), coax him and his girlfriend, Kelly (Lara Parker), out for a trip in their brand new RV. This bunch is so lame they imagine they’re living a rebellious, independent lifestyle in their souped-up camper: “We don’t need anything from anybody,” Frank crows to Roger. “We are self-contained, babe.” Roger confirms just how spinelessly tame his character is once he and Frank visit a local sheriff’s office to report the murder they witnessed. While the sheriff gives them his spiel, Fonda waits politely with arms crossed behind his back, purposefully making himself look smaller out of some goofy kind of deference. He even corrects the sheriff later when he compares the cultists to hippies. There’s nothing he won’t do to be Johnny Middle-of-the-Road.
On the other hand, Fonda in Dirty Mary never backhands his titular squeeze (Susan George), but that’s only because the filmmakers were clearly trying to avoid an R rating (there are only verbal intimations of Mary’s sluttiness, and the closest Larry comes to cursing is when he repeatedly tells Mary to “kiss off”). He and his partner, Deke (Adam Roarke), have just pulled a big heist and are on the run from the cops. In this context, Fonda’s dickish swagger seems almost accidental. He sweats bullets and grits his teeth through most of the film, so he’s wound up even when he’s cracking wise with lines that were clearly meant to sound slicker than guano (Fonda’s best one-liner has to be when he sneers, “You know what it means when somebody like me gets off to a bad start? Not a God damn thing”). Fonda brought the look and screenwriters Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santean provided the modicum of style needed to make Larry a character worth caring about.
The same can’t be said for Race with the Devil screenwriters Lee Frost and Wes Bishop. Fonda’s character is so dull in this film that when his girlfriend decides to steal a library book on satanic runes, she promises to mail the book back once she’s done with it. I mean, for crying out loud, these characters are fleeing omnipresent cultists in an RV! When they finally do get to fighting for their lives, it’s far too little action delivered much too late for it to matter. Fonda might have been able to look good in most everything he was in, but even he can’t save a turd like Race with the Devil.
Shout! Factory did a very good job cleaning up the picture quality for these releases; there's minimal grain, and the original aspect ratios are preserved. Unfortunately, the sound quality on Race with the Devil isn't all it could be, as the audio mix makes the music and sound effects sound a lot louder than the dialogue track.
Shout!'s special features are characteristically only mildly interesting. The commemorative featurettes included on both discs are inessential, but the audio commentary track by Dirty Mary Crazy Larry director John Hough is a fun and relaxed informal history of the film's production. It's hard to believe that someone that sounds this amenable talking about his films could be the same guy that directed the horrendous Legend of Hell House, but Hough is that guy and his audio commentary is just that easy to listen to.
While it should go without saying that Peter Fonda makes a better badass in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry than he does a milquetoast in Race with the Devil, you really have to see him as both in these films to fully appreciate why that statement of fact warrants repeating.