The 1997 film Ulee's Gold was effective in large part because writer/director Victor Nunez let star Peter Fonda depart from his iconic image—Nunez keeps Fonda's beekeeper protagonist penned in, working his craft while keeping the world at arm's length and storing his emotions beneath the surface. It's shocking, in a quiet way, to see Fonda give such an internalized performance, since few actors have ever been so associated with the freedom of the open road and the home-is-anywhere-you-hang-your-helmet life as Fonda, whose star turn in Easy Rider became shorthand for an alternate interpretation of the American Dream. But Nunez didn't so much cast Fonda against type as pick up and exploit the darker undercurrents of past films that used Fonda and a strip of lonesome highway to say something about freedom and its limits.
Two of those films are now appearing on DVD. The 1974 release Dirty Mary Crazy Larry casts Fonda as a stock-car-racer-turned-bandit who, with sidekick Adam Roarke, decides to make a play for a big score and head off into the sunset. The first part comes easily enough, with an answering machine and the threat of violence letting the pair rip off a grocery managed by an uncredited Roddy McDowall. But the getaway gets complicated, and not just because Fonda and Roarke reluctantly pick up wild child Susan George (in a performance that can politely be called "unrestrained"). Tailed by relentless, rules-bending, sideburns-sporting lawman Vic Morrow, they work through a succession of hot rods in an attempt to make it across a county line that seems to move farther and farther way. Director John Hough packs the film with stunning car stunts filmed in California backwaters. Though he sacrifices meaning for trashy thrills at every opportunity—and winds it all down with a brain-damaged variation on the end of Easy Rider—the way Fonda slowly loses his initially unflappable cool throughout the film makes it worth a look.
Released the following year, Race With The Devil takes Fonda on another perilous journey. With wives Loretta Swit and Lara Parker in tow, Fonda and buddy Warren Oates head north from San Antonio to take in some wilderness and—continuing Fonda's nearly unbroken run of motor-enthusiast characters—indulge in some off-track motorcycle rides. But before long, they witness a grisly campfire sacrifice that puts them on the run from Satanists, who, as Fonda and Oates quickly learn, aren't always so easy to spot. A near-exact cross between Rosemary's Baby, Duel, and The Parallax View, Race With The Devil has problems getting over the flat, TV-style direction by Cleopatra Jones director Jack Starrett, but it gets by on engaging drive-in goofiness, even if it's tough to swallow the idea that mid-'70s Texas swarmed with Satanists. (Though come to think of it, maybe that part makes sense.) If Fonda recognizes he's in a lousy movie, however, he never lets it show. He's taken this ride before—the search for good times that leads to horrors that could make a man leave it all behind to go tend bees by himself.