In the annals of car-oriented films throughout the decades, a select few have presented us with automobiles that became truly iconic. The Highland Green ’68 Ford Mustang that raced through the hills of San Francisco in Bullitt. The “East Bound and Down” 1977 Pontiac Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit. Arnie’s demon-possessed, cherry red 1958 Plymouth Fury in Christine.
But for every finely crafted, blockbuster movie like these that propelled a car to four-wheeled stardom, there are a number of less-refined and initially unsuccessful films where the reverse happened, and the car actually made the movie notable.
Case in point, 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.
A B-movie of derivative plot, decidedly cornball dialogue, and some fairly atrocious performances, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry nonetheless became a cult film for Mopar fanatics long after its theatrical release by virtue of the movie’s featured car.
In this chapter of Rob’s Movie Muscle, we’re gonna take a deep dive into the 1969 Dodge Charger R/T that made Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry such a favorite in recent years, have a look at what it did on set, and learn what became of it after filming.
Are you ready? Then buckle up!
First some preliminaries. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry was a production of Academy Pictures and was distributed in the United States by Twentieth Century Fox. It was directed by British television and Hammer horror film veteran, John Hough, based on a screenplay by Leigh Chapman, Antonio Santean, and Richard Unekis.
Starring is counterculture hero Peter Fonda as Larry, Susan George as Mary, Adam Rourke as Deke, and the late, great Vic Morrow as Captain Everett Franklin.
The film tells the story of Larry and Deke, a NASCAR aspirant and his mechanic, who, after realizing they’ll never make the big time without major funding, execute a plot to rob a supermarket. Pulling off the heist successfully, their plan is to drive out of town and switch cars to confuse any pursuing cops.
All would have gone off without a hitch if it wasn’t for an unyielding pursuit by police Captain Franklin, and the appearance of Mary, a scorned one-night stand of Larry’s who insinuates herself into their getaway plans.
What ensues is a fairly predictable pursuit between the cops and Larry, Mary, and Deke across California’s Central Valley, albeit one with some pretty serious cars and some sensational stunts.
While for the first half of the movie, Larry and Deke roll in a pedestrian ’66 Chevy Impala 327ci four-door that has clearly had some modifications done to the exhaust system, the car they switch to in order to evade the cops is anything but.
One of Mopar’s finest boulevard predators from the Golden Era of muscle, the ’69 Charger R/T the trio makes their getaway in is draped in Citron Yella, a greenish-yellow “High Impact” color that was, in fact, only available in 1971.
In addition to the chronologically incorrect hue, the production also added a non-factory, matte black stripe with a 440 engine callout on the car’s flanks. As to why a couple of robbers fleeing Johnny Law would choose to make their getaway in a day-glo car with black stripes, you’ll have to ask someone else, but it does look good on screen.
Interestingly, many folks who originally saw the movie in theaters and on early videotape copies swear that the car was more of a banana yellow, and there is a curious aside as to why: it actually was yellow in the theater and on tape. Color adjustment of film footage in the early 1970s was done entirely by eye, and whoever was responsible for working on Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry color-timed the greenish tint out from the paint, thinking it was a lighting error. It wasn’t until the DVD release of the movie in 2005 that this was amended.
Paint job aside, the only other non-factory bits on the outside of the car seem to be a set of American Racing Sprint Ansen-style slotted mag wheels and a hood-mounted aerial antenna for Deke’s police radio scanner. Inside, the black vinyl interior appears to be bone stock.
During production of the movie, three Dodge Chargers were utilized. An authentic 1969 R/T equipped with a 375 horsepower 440 Magnum V8 and a three-speed, floor-shifted TorqueFlite automatic acted as the glamour vehicle, used primarily for close-ups and beauty shots. The other two, a ’69 non-R/T, and a ’68 non-R/T, were used as stunt cars.
Director Hogue wanted realism in his film, so all stunts were performed practically and at considerable speed. Hogue also instructed Peter Fonda, who did quite a bit of his own driving, and the legion of stunt drivers employed by the production (including the legendary Carey Loftin of Bullitt fame), that he wanted all the damage to the cars to be done on-screen.
So when you see the Charger and police cars trade paint, or the collision between the Charger and the pickup truck that results in the left front damage to the Charger, that’s all real. Very satisfying compared to today’s world of CGI effects that populate every Fast and the Furious sequel and the like.
The two most memorable stunts in the film – the helicopter/Charger chase, and the finale in which the Charger collides with a freight train and explodes – deserve special mention.
In the former, Captain Franklin commandeers a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter and instructs the pilot to run the Charger off the road. Flown by legendary film pilot, James Gavin, the sequence really must be seen to be believed, and surely stands as one of the most incredible aerial stunts in movie history.
Vic Morrow, whose presence on board the helicopter was mandated by Hogue, was so terrified of being in the chopper during the filming of the sequence that he insisted on a $1 million life insurance policy before he would agree to do it.
During the negotiations that ensued, Morrow threatened to walk off the picture if his demand wasn’t met. He reportedly told the producers that he always had a premonition that he would one day perish in a chopper. Eerily and sadly, he would indeed lose his life on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982 when a hovering helicopter crashed on top of him.
The second aforementioned stunt, which ends the film in a fiery collision, was accomplished by removing the engine from the ’68 Charger and filling it with explosives. Using a cable that ran under the train tracks, the car was towed into the locomotive at speed in one shot, and in a second separate shot, the explosives were detonated.
It was discovered that there was a technical issue in the sequence after it was photographed, and since the ’68 Charger was completely destroyed by the collision and the explosion, the ’69 stunt car had to be likewise prepared and crashed in a second take, the one that is seen in the movie.
After filming, the genuine ’69 R/T and the ’69 non-R/T were returned to the studio, and both were repaired to a state of drivability. After the film was released in 1974 the cars were sold off.
One was purchased from the studio by a resident of Sun Valley, California, and to this day is sitting in that person’s backyard, still wearing the Citron Yella paint, black stripe, and mag wheels. It apparently has a primered left front fender from the repairs that were done. It is not for sale.
The other was purchased by a film industry professional who worked on the television show, The Streets of San Francisco, and recounted some years ago on the DodgeCharger.com forums how he came to own the car.
After acquiring the Charger, he discovered some pretty amazing collectibles in the trunk, including some highway maps of the areas the film was shot in, the scanner antenna, and the denim shirt that Peter Fonda wore throughout the movie.
He had the car repainted, and used it for several years as his daily driver, until his girlfriend and her little sister ran it into a guardrail. The Charger was then traded to a dealership for a new car. Subsequent to this, this car’s whereabouts are unknown.
Today, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is a staple of automotive cinema, and despite its rough edges, is remembered fondly for the boldness and audacity of its stunts, and for that Citron Yella Mopar monster that was the true star of the film.