Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In Praise of Peter Fonda...and 1970s Car Crash Movies

One of the special pleasures of “3:10 to Yuma” is the presence of Peter Fonda in a major supporting role as a bounty hunter on the hunt for outlaw Russell Crowe.

With his long gray hair, he makes a marvelous bounty hunter and every scene he’s in is a pleasure. I’ve always liked him, even though, oddly enough, I’ve never seen his most famous movies, “Easy Rider” (1969) or “The Wild Angels.” (1966).

No, my affection for him begins with two action movies he made in the 1970s, “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (1974) and “Race with the Devil.” (1975,)

Back in the days before video games, computers, I pods, and cable television, I think movie awareness was much higher then than now. Television commercials saturated the airwaves for weeks and weeks before these movies opened, so by the time they came to my local theater, the Dolton, every kid in the neighborhood ached to see these movies. And we did, and I remember seeing half, if not more, of my class from Roosevelt School at weekend matinees.

“Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” starred Fonda and British sexpot Susan George as two modern day outlaws on the run, chased across Texas by Sheriff Vic Morrow in his helicopter. The ads promised amazing car stunts and did not disappoint, culminating in a climax that still packs a wallop. The picture made a small fortune for 20th Century Fox.

Even better was “Race with the Devil” which has Fonda and Warren Oates and their spouses (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit, respectively) riding through the Southwest in their RV when one night they witness a Satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice. The rest of the movie is the Satanists in pursuit of the couples. It’s all most enjoyable, with nary a wasted scene, terrific car stunts, and a climax that was pretty disturbing. (It was talk of all the kids that Monday at recess, and, alas, one that would not be filmed today).

This has been a pretty good year for Fonda. I got a big kick out of his cameo in “Wild Hogs”, and I was pleased to see him as Satan in “Ghost Rider”, a movie which I alone seemed to enjoy as a big budget comic book movie with a hearty B movie sensibility.

The 1970s were a time of ubiquitous B-movie car crash movies, and the Dolton Theater seemingly played them all, either new or revivals as co-features for the newer car crash extravaganzas. We saw Burt Reynolds pictures like “White Lightning” (1973) and “Gator” (1976); Jan-Michael Vincent in “White Line Fever” (1975); David Carradine and Kate Jackson in “Thunder and Lightning” (1977); and the immortal Ron Howard classics “Eat My Dust” (1976) and “Grand Theft Auto.” (1977).

I remember one action flick called with Susan George (again!) and Bo Jackson called “A Small Town in Texas” (1976) which promised a car crashing through a giant block of ice. I wanted to see that, but was disappointed that, due to time considerations when all of us could go, we had to miss it. But my friends and I were able to make the co-feature “Return to Macon County” (1975), so we got to the show early and caught the last 10 minutes or so of “A Small Town in Texas” and we did get to see that car go barreling through that ice. I remember being somewhat disappointed that it didn’t amount to much.

Anyway, I have a special affection for these B movies, which had nothing more in mind but to entertain for 90 minutes and offered their stunt men and drivers the opportunity to work their magic with some really terrific action scenes. They remain a very pleasant memory of my movie-going youth.


Rick said...

Kevin, what a nice surprise to see a positive review of RACE WITH THE DEVIL. I saw it at the theatre and remember it being an entertaining, exciting B-film. Too bad those movies don't show on TV anymore!

Kevin Deany said...

Rick, Yes, this has always been a favorite of mine. I recently did a list of my 100 favorite movies and this made it. I love the successful mixing of genres in this.

Aki said...

Kevin, I too, have seen Ride With the Devil. I have always liked it. It is an exciting movie. And I don't care what anyone says, it is my favortie Peter Fonda movie.

Kevin Deany said...

Aki: I've been surprised by the number of people that read this and agree with me about "Race with the Devil." It seems to have left a large impression of people who see it.