Man, this movie really has it all. You’ve got an angry Peter Fonda, a transfixing Susan George and a driven Vic Morrow, all racing across America. It’s really a great time, a tense chase film that never lets up and then crushes you at the end.
Fonda plays a NASCAR hopeful named Larry Rayder who grabs his mechanic Deke Sommers (Adam Roarke) and holds a supermarket manager’s wife* and kid hostage for $150,000, enough to get their own car on the track. To get away with it, they have the maps to a walnut grove that has air cover and no way for the police to block the road from the high speed of their 1966 Chevrolet Impala. But things get complicated when Deke’s one night stand Mary Coombs demands that she be let in on the escape plan, which puts them up against Capt. Everett Franklin (Morrow), who has no idea how to give up.
The script to this movie was started years before by Howard Hawks, who bought the rights to the book The Chase by Richard Unekis. After he had issues developing it, two English industrialists named Sir James Hanson and Sir Gordon White — who owned Eveready Batteries and Ball Park Franks — tried to make the script into a film with Vanishing Point director Michael Pearson. That said, nothing happened and the two were frustrated.
One night over dinner, Hanson related the story to Jimmy Boyd. Yes, the same guy who wrote “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Boyd rewrote the script and raised $2 million on his own, planning on having David Soul and Sam Elliott as his leads.
Enter James Nicholson, the former head of American-International Pictures, who was leaving to form Academy Pictures in partnership with 20th Century Fox. It was a great deal: Fox would finance and distribute the movies while giving him complete control. One of the movies he wanted to make was Boyd’s script, which was now called Pursuit. Nicholson was the master of naming movies and gave it the much better title that made it a success.
Nicholson announced that Academy would make six films for Fox over two years and they wouldn’t necessarily be exploitation films. His widow Susan Hart claimed that five of them would be The Legend of Hell House, Blackfather, Street People, The “B” People and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.
Sadly, Nicholson would only see the first film get made, as he would die of a malignant brain tumor within six months of the deal.
Hell House director John Hough also made this movie, sneaking in the dark ending, telling Film Talk: “…my messages to the audience were plain and simple: speed kills, and also, considering the nature of the film, crime doesn’t pay. That’s what Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry was really all about.”
*A super-brief Roddy McDowell appearance.