When Quentin Tarantino brought us Deathproof a few years back, it was an opportunity to see the face off those of us from the seventies were denied. The 1971 Challenger vs. the 1969 Charger. His film provided the showdown between the cars featured in two of the big car chase films from the early 1970s; Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Each of these movies featured supercharged automobiles on cross country chases. There is mayhem, destruction of police cars galore, and nihilistic endings for each picture. Deathproof solves the puzzle of the negative resolutions of both films, and let’s us glory in the chase. There was a lot that irritated me about the Tarantino movie, but once the cars were on the road the movie was perfection. This film has some of the same problems, when not in the chase, it is terrible. Even when the chases are going on though, Dirty Mary,Crazy Larry is held back from the pack by major problems. Instead of being a delight it is a drudge, punctuated occasionally by some good live action car stunts.
The movie starts with disdainful attitude as Larry, played by Peter Fonda, crawls out of bed with Mary, Susan George and proceeds to show off for his partner by making a series of not so clever jokes. The partner, a sulking guy played by an actor I never heard from again, is not amused and he replies with equally lame lines in a verbal pissing contest that no one in the audience will enjoy. It get worse however, because as unclever as these two are, they are sparkling wits in comparison to Mary. Her repartee is annoying and it is delivered in a style that is even more annoying. These are the main characters folks, and if you watch this you get to spend an hour and forty minutes in their company. It is enough to give you a headache.
You might think it’s going to be OK, because maybe the story will pull you in and the characters will have something that makes us root for them. No Chance. In Vanishing Point we have Kowaslski, a unfairly disgraced cop, running his car across the country to win a bet that he can deliver it within the proscribed time. He never hurt anyone and is sympathetic although a little pig-headed. The two guys in this movie are a car racing team down on their luck, who decide to steal a bundle of cash, by kidnapping the wife and child of a grocery store manager, holding them hostage, and threatening bodily harm against the preteen daughter. Mary joins them inadvertently and thrills at the mayhem that follows. She is as reckless and dangerous as they are, and late in the film, when she moralizes about how indifferent Larry was in a car crash, it is the most hypocritical character change you can imagine. The Sheriff that is pursuing them is played by Vic Morrow, and he is supposed to be an unconventional, rebellious kind of cop. The problem is that we see no motive and he and his boss exchange unpleasantries with nearly the same frequency as the crooks. The only sympathetic characters in the movie are the victims of the kidnapping, the Dad is played by Roddy MacDowell for no particular reason. He has a couple of scenes and then is out of the picture.
So if the plot is lame, the characters are annoying, and there is no rooting interest, what’s left? Easy, car chases. These are non-CGI, real action stunts, put together by a group of professionals to thrill us. The spectacle is pretty satisfying. There are jumps and close calls and crashes that appear every few minutes to give us a reason to stay for the film. I mentioned in an earlier posting that drive-in movie fare was usually just involving enough to avoid interrupting the petting and foreplay that would go on in the cars in the theater. This movie is perfect for that. When the cars are not moving, you make your own action, and then you pause every few minutes and watch the action on the screen. There is an excellent chase by a helicopter in the last part of the film, some of the camera work is really fine, and the chopper pilot must have been really good for what he was asked to do. I had a hard time getting the irony out of my head that Vic Morrow was in the chopper chasing the people on the ground. Those of you unaware of the history of Vic Morrow, should wait to look it up until after you see the movie. Once you know, I suspect it will knock around in your head and distract you as well.
I really wish I could say I saw this at a drive-in with a girl. The memory would be a lot sweeter. I did see it at a drive-in, but not with a girl, instead I saw it with my buddy Don Hayes. The one really great thing about that was that Don’s Mom had a 1969 Dodge Charger, and I’m not sure but there is a good chance that was the car we were in when we saw this disappointing movie. Vanishing Point is the pinnacle of 70’s car chase movie, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is a poor imitation that is for completists only.