After Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper went on to varied, prestigious careers behind and in front of the camera. Meanwhile, their cohort Peter Fonda hung happily in B-world, producing, directing, and starring in the same kind of bare-knuckle genre pictures he made in the ’60s. And he made a mint at it, too. Both 1974’s Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and 1975’s Race With The Devil (now paired up in a double-disc set) were drive-in-style movies that became respectable-sized hits for Fox, and made a huge impression on young filmgoers even as critics largely ignored them. Fonda didn’t have much acting range, but he knew how to look cool and cocky, and in his ’70s hits, that was job No. 1.
In Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in particular, Fonda is practically ballast. Playing a stock-car driver who robs a supermarket alongside his partner Adam Roarke, Fonda spends the bulk of the movie behind the wheel of a speeding car, with grumpy lawman Vic Morrow on his tail and obnoxious one-night stand Susan George sniping in his ear. Director John Hough—best known for his work on the British TV hit The Avengers—keeps finding dynamic ways to stage and shoot chases, largely by keeping the angles low and adding unexpected vehicles. (A bus! A helicopter! A train!) Of the pack of pessimistic anti-hero car-chase movies released in the early ’70s, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry isn’t in the class of Vanishing Point or The Sugarland Express; it’s more functional than spectacular. But it builds momentum as it goes, and Fonda is suitably iconic with his giant sunglasses and fuck-you grin.
He’s even better in Race With The Devil, which adds a streak of supernatural horror to the moody car-chase oeuvre. Fonda and Warren Oates play dirt-bike racers who are on vacation with their wives Lara Parker and Loretta Swit when they stumble across a Satanic cult sacrifice in the woods. They alert the local authorities, only to learn that the cult’s tendrils stretch across the region and into the seats of power. Soon, the couples are tearing through the boonies in their tricked-out RV, with occultist hicks in hot pursuit. The “small-town folks are kinda creepy” concept has been done many times, but Race With The Devil balances the suspense with breathless action and lots of casual moments where the heroes just hang out, enjoying each other’s company. Fonda and Oates have such good chemistry as pals that it makes their mad dash to safety all the more gripping.
In 1976, Fonda re-teamed with his old boss Roger Corman and young writer-director Jonathan Demme for Fighting Mad (now available on a single disc with the non-Fonda-starring Moving Violation). Unlike Demme’s other early forays into exploitation, Fighting Mad doesn’t try to do anything too ambitious or offbeat with its premise. Fonda plays a man who returns home to his family’s Arkansas farm and discovers that the entire community is embroiled in a fight against strip-miners. When the fat cats play too rough, Fonda picks up his bow and pistol to fight back. Demme’s script is a straightforward blue-collar revenge thriller, heavier on explosions and punch-outs than his work tends to be. But Demme fills out the edges of the story with local color, and emphasizes naturalistic, low-key interactions. Fonda isn’t a rich dramatic actor, but he could always do low-key, and he knew how to look ice-cold with a weapon in his hand.
Key features: A comprehensive half-hour featurette on Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, an anecdote-laden interview with Fonda on Race With The Devil, and a Fonda/Demme/Corman commentary track on Fighting Mad.