Ah, the 1970s… Era of the polyester wide-collar shirt, the custom van, ham radio, and brown and mustard interior décor. A decade when the “Me Generation” became a buzzword, women’s rights became a political movement, and mass media experienced a sea change.
In terms of the latter, perhaps nothing was transformed more than the types of movies Hollywood began churning out.
Gone were the indulgent, massive, epic films of the studio era such as Cleopatra and Ben Hur, and in were the small, dark, often violent films where antiheroes were the new protagonists. Think Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Michael Corleone from The Godfather 1 & 2 to appreciate the phenomenon.
The 70s were also a seminal time for the car movie, both in terms of volume and quality, and many featured some epic antiheroes in them. While I have reviewed a number of such films in the past such as Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, it has been a while since I had a look at a film from the era.
With there being no time like the present, or so they say, I thought this month would be perfect to delve back into the period and have a look at a classic antihero propelled car movie. The film I chose for the task is Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw and it’s the subject of this installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review!
Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw was produced and distributed by the legendary, independent, drive-in B-movie house American International Pictures. Founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. The outfit found success in the 1960s and ‘70s following a formula of low budgets and on-screen violence and sex and was famous for launching the careers of Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, and Peter Fonda.
Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw was one of AIP’s formulaic releases for 1976. Produced by Mark L. Lester, Steve Broidy, and Lynn Ross, the film was also directed by Lester, based on a script by Vernon Zimmerman.
The film stars Marjoe Gortner, who had previously appeared in the disaster flick Earthquake, and Lynda Carter, who had recently become famous as television’s Wonder Woman. Jesse Vint, Merrie Lynn Ross, Belinda Balaski, and Gene Drew round out the supporting cast.
The movie tells the story of Lyle Wheeler (Gortner), a quick-draw performer and all-around drifter. On a whim, he steals a car and drives across New Mexico without a destination in mind. One day while eating at a drive-in restaurant, he makes the acquaintance of Bobbie Jo Baker (Carter), a beautiful carhop waitress and aspiring country singer. The two quickly fall in love and hit the road on a search for kicks, accompanied by Bobbie Jo’s hippie friend, Essie (Balaski).
Together, they take in the New Mexico scenery, visit a hippie commune, and take magic mushrooms with a Native American elder. Upon running out of money, they decide to pay a visit to Bobbie Jo’s sister, Pearl (Ross), who is working at a strip club and dating a two-bit hustler, Slick Callahan (Vint).
Slick has Lyle drive him to what he says is his office, but is actually a business that he promptly robs. A security guard fires at Slick and Lyle, and Lyle is forced to shoot the man dead.
The five go on the run as a result and are pursued by unrelenting Sheriff Hicks (Drew). Lyle teaches the girls how to shoot, and the gang then resorts to robbing banks to pay for gas to stay one step ahead of the law.
After a series of heists in which some innocents are killed, the stakes are ratcheted up to the point where Essie can no longer stand the pressure. She rats out Lyle, Bobbie Jo, and the rest to Sheriff Hicks, setting up a final showdown between the outlaws and the lawmen.
Like much of AIP’s film output, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw is not fine art, but rather grindhouse tripe that relies on the basest of thrills to titillate an audience that was most likely comprised of teenage males.
The narrative is trite and borrows heavily from earlier films of the genre such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Sugarland Express, and Easy Rider. A particular moment in the film is literally stolen, word for word, from Deliverance, to the extent that I thought to myself that if you pilfered from another movie like that today, a massive lawsuit would ensue.
What’s more, the storytelling is often amateurish at best, with poor protagonist motivations and uneven characterizations abounding. It also lacks explanation at key moments, such as where most of the gang’s vehicles are being sourced from, or how we suddenly find them armed with fully automatic M16 rifles. Stuff just seems to happen without a word of how or why.
Continuity errors are everywhere. Characters’ wardrobes change mid-scene, hairstyles differ from shot to shot, and although Lyle originally hit the road with nothing but a bedroll on him, he magically has his six-gun, holster, and multiple changes of clothes just a couple of scenes later. Also, guns apparently never need reloading.
The acting is often uneven, with some scenes being played hilariously over the top, while others are infused with forced somberness by the actors.
Gratuitous violence and serial nudity are on par with other exploitation films from the era and provide a good portion of the cheap thrills here. It must be said that both Gortner and Carter look good sans clothes though.
On the plus side, the cinematography is actually very competent, and the small-town and rural New Mexico locations are beautiful, and add gritty realism to the mise en scene. With a few exceptions, the editing, by Michael Luciano, who also cut such classics as The Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is also quite good.
What really saves Bobbie Jo from utter oblivion though is the automotive action and the small handful of cool cars that perform it.
The hero car is naturally the four-wheeled star, and it’s a hot one: a 1970 Mustang hardtop. Resplendent in Grabber Orange with black C-stripes along the flanks, a black, factory wing mounted to the trunk lid, and a black interior, the car has a number of obvious modifications to it.
Most notable are the chrome side pipes which look to come out of the trailing end of the front wheel wells and stretch back to the rear of the front doors. With no cladding on the pipes, one would hope that Lynda Carter was careful not to brush a bare ankle against them while getting in and out during filming.
The car is also fitted with non-factory, polished aluminum mag wheels, fitted with Mohawk Super Mag 70, white-letter tires. A good-looking setup.
As to what was actually under the hood of the car, we never find out, as the motor is never shown, but before Lyle steals the car, the owner hilariously tells him that it packs a “454 Cobra.” I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking screenwriter Zimmerman might have done a bit more research on Mustangs and Chevys of the era!
Mopar fans will notice two standout cars that feature briefly in one scene: a 1968 Dodge Charger painted in Bright Red and outfitted with a black vinyl roof, and a rather beat-up ’69 Plymouth Roadrunner with primer covering some of the Yellow Gold paint.
A red 1969 Mercury Cougar convertible also figures briefly in an early scene at the drive-in.
The coppers in the movie chase after Lyle and friends in a series of 1970s sedans that include Plymouth Furys, Buick LeSabres, and Ford Custom 500s.
The chase sequences aptly befit the cars, with plenty of jumps, J-turns, and drifting on display.
In spite of the many technical, acting, and story problems in the film, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw somehow manages to be a fairly entertaining film. It effectively captures the mood of the era and delights with superb Western scenery and some great cars. While still a solidly B-movie, I nonetheless enjoyed it enough to give it five-and-a-half out of ten pistons. There are worse ways to spend an hour-and-a-half.
See y’all next time!