Two NASCAR hopefuls, driver Larry Rayder and his mechanic Deke Sommers, successfully execute a supermarket heist to finance their jump into big-time auto racing. They extort $150,000 in cash from a supermarket manager by holding his wife and daughter hostage.
In making their escape, they are confronted by Larry's one-night stand, Mary Coombs. She coerces them to take her along for the ride in their souped-up 1966 Chevrolet Impala. The unorthodox sheriff, Captain Everett Franklin, obsessively pursues the trio in a dragnet, only to find his outmoded patrol cars unable to catch Larry, Mary, and Deke after they ditch the Impala for a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T 440 at a flea market.
As part of the escape plan, Larry's vehicle enters an expansive walnut grove, where the trees provide significant cover from aerial tracking, and the many intersecting roads ("with sixty distinct and separate exits") making road blocks ineffective. The trio evades several Dodge Polara patrol cars, a specially-prepared high-performance police interceptor, and even Captain Franklin himself in a Bell JetRanger helicopter. Believing they've finally beaten the police, Larry and company meet their doom when they randomly collide with a freight train pulled by an Alco S1 locomotive.Peter Fonda as Larry Rayder
Susan George as Mary Coombs
Adam Roarke as Deke Sommers
Vic Morrow as Capt. Everett Franklin
Kenneth Tobey as Sheriff Carl Donahue
Lynn Borden as Evelyn Stanton
Adrianne Herman as Cindy Stanton
James W. Gavin as Helicopter Pilot
Roddy McDowall (uncredited) as George Stanton
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is based on the novel originally titled The Chase (later renamed Pursuit) by Richard Unekis, and published in 1963. The story incorporated a phenomenon that was relatively new in 1963: major auto manufacturers were putting powerful V-8 engines into mid-sized cars (the dawn of the "muscle car" era) and young thieves behind the wheel of these cars were now able to outrun the economy 6-cylinder sedans driven by police in many jurisdictions. The protagonists of The Chase used such a vehicle, a Chevrolet, and made use of the checkerboard of roads in the farm country of Illinois to outrun the police.
According to Unekis' son, the rights to the book were originally bought for very little money by director Howard Hawks, who had Steve McQueen in mind for the title role of a future film project. Hawks commissioned three scripts, all of which followed the book very closely (and consequently were out of date with the automobile technology of the 1970s) but Hawks elected to opt out of the project when he was offered US$50,000 for the film rights by two wealthy English industrialist partners, Sir James Hanson and Sir Gordon White. White and Hanson (who, at the time, owned Eveready Batteries and Ball Park Franks) had purchased the book to read on their plane while flying to the U.S.. They both felt The Chase would make an entertaining film and presented the idea to personal friend Michael Pearson, who had produced an earlier successful car chase cult movie, Vanishing Point.
After pitching their project to their movie mogul friends, who not only included Pearson but Albert R. Broccoli, Harold Robbins, and Sam Spiegel, they soon discovered the movie business was not as easy as they had suspected. In addition, they were saddled with an out of date book - and no screenplay - for which they grossly overpaid. With no interest from anyone in picking up the project Sir James and Sir Gordon soon lost interest in making movies.
Over dinner one evening at Hanson's estate in Palm Springs, California they told their plight to friend and neighbor Jimmy Boyd. Boyd read the book and agreed with Hanson and White that it would make a great car chase. Boyd, a race car enthusiast, had successfully built and raced cars along with his friend Lance Reventlow, and had come very close to pursuing race car driving as a career. He guaranteed Hanson and White their fifty thousand dollars in return for the rights to the book. Boyd wrote the screenplay himself along the lines of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, updating the dialogue and humor for an early 1970s audience. He also changed the two main characters from the escaped convicts in the book into a slightly larcenous - but likable - NASCAR dreamer and his Mechanic, nicknamed Fast Floyd and Dirty Deke. Boyd then incorporated the one-night stand female stowaway and the added dimension of a NASCAR-engined getaway car capable of 165 miles per hour (266 km/h). Except for the tires and wheels, it was a stock-appearing Ford built by the famous race car builders Traco Engineering.
On the strength of his script Boyd had raised $2 million for the budget (a big budget at the time). Boyd had two young, then-unknown actors, David Soul and Sam Elliott, in mind for the lead roles when he got a phone call from James Nicholson, president and partner of Sam Arkoff at American International Pictures, a major producer of "B Movies". Nicholson was leaving AIP to form his own company, Academy Pictures, in partnership with 20th Century Fox: Fox would finance and distribute his films and give him complete control. Nicholson told Boyd he had read his script for Pursuit and wanted it to be his first film for Academy Pictures. It was very risky making an "Indie" film in the 1970s without a distribution deal. Important film festivals like Sundance Film Festival did not exist. Boyd decided to enter into a partnership with Nicholson's Academy Pictures.
Fox got Peter Fonda interested in the project and Nicholson hired English director John Hough. Hough had directed a horror film for Nicholson at AIP and could bring English actress Susan George into the mix, providing one of the male leads would be rewritten for her. It became quickly apparent that Nicholson and Boyd had two completely different philosophies of how the film should be made. Boyd wanted to make a realistic, exciting, humorous, helicopter-versus-car chase. Nicholson wasn't so much interested in the content of the film as he was in attaching recognizable names and catchy titles to market it. After a long series of legal battles over control and Nicholson's rewrites of the film, Boyd accepted a settlement offer and left the project.
In the 2005 DVD and later blu-ray releases, director John Hough says six (6) blue 1966 Chevrolet Impala and six (6) limegreen Dodge Charger were used in the filming. All six Chargers, including both the 1969 and 1968 models, can be seen and easily identified in the movie as they are slightly different from each other. They also had a mechanic to work on the cars overnight to repair any damage. Car haulers would follow the filming team with the additional cars.
John Hough, in the same interview, also revealed that the ending in which the Charger crashes into the train was not in the original script and only he, the cast and the film crew knew about it. The studio, 20th Century Fox, was furious when they saw the movie, because they already had plans for a sequel.
The film was shot in and around Stockton, California in late 1973, mostly in the walnut groves near the small town of Linden, California. The supermarket scenes were filmed in Sonora, California, the drawbridge jump was filmed in Tracy, California, the swap meet scene in Clements, California and the climactic train crash was filmed on the Stockton Terminal and Eastern Railroad in Linden, California, near the intersection of Ketcham Lane and Archerdale Road. The Bell JetRanger used in the climactic chase was flown by veteran film pilot James W. Gavin (who played the character of the pilot as well) and was actually flown between rows of trees and under powerlines as seen in the film.
There is the assumption that film developers thought the Dodge Charger was actually bright yellow and so "corrected" the film negatives to eliminate the greenish tint on the car. In fact, the entire movie in theaters, TV and on VHS was originally very warm toned. The color was more correct in the 2005 DVD release (and later Blu-ray releases) and the Dodge Charger became the correct limegreen color (Sometimes falsely considered to be the 1971 Chrysler color "GY3 Curious Yellow / Citron Yella" - a color that is actually a very bright yellow in natural sunlight - and not greenish.). A newer image of apparently one of the actual (unrestored) movie cars spotted in a backyard confirms the color to be limegreen and not yellow or "curious yellow". Given the custom look of the car, with custom wheels and tires, custom stripe, vinyl roof moldings but no vinyl roof, one can assume the limegreen color is custom as well and may not be a factory Chrysler/Dodge color - although, the car's color looks close to the Dodge color "Sublime" (code FJ5).
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry was a very popular release of Fox's in the spring of 1974, earning North American rentals of $12.1 million. By 1977, it earned an estimated $14.7 million in theatrical rentals.
On February 18, 1977, the film came to broadcast television (with several scenes cut prior to theatrical release inserted to extend the film's length to the minimum required to fill a standard 2-hour time slot). These added-for-TV scenes have never been released to home video.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 50% rating based on 14 reviews, with an average rating of 4.7/10.
The film was released on VHS and Beta in October 1979 on Magnetic Video.
On June 28, 2005, the film was released on DVD through Anchor Bay Entertainment as a "Supercharger Edition". It included a color-corrected and fully restored theatrical version of the film as well as many bonus features.
On April 12, 2011, the restored film was released again on DVD, this time through Shout! Factory, packaged as a double feature with another Peter Fonda film, Race with the Devil. This release contained fewer bonus features than the Anchor Bay release.
This same release debuted on Blu-ray for the first time on June 4, 2013.