If you want to see Roger Corman’s New World Pictures oper­a­tion work­ing at a peak lev­el, you need look no fur­ther than Big Bad Mama.  This fem­me-cen­tric riff on the post–Bonnie And Clyde gang­ster gen­re is every­thing you could hope for from a 1970’s dri­ve-in flick.  It remains a big favorite with Corman fans today and, as the fol­low­ing review will hope­ful­ly reveal, there are many good rea­sons for its endur­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty.

For starters, Big Bad Mama has a rock-solid sto­ry­line that deliv­ers the goods with humor and a social­ly for­ward-think­ing mind­set.  Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickenson) is a sin­gle mom in the Depression-era America who is will­ing to do what­ev­er is nec­es­sary to stay afloat.  Her main moti­va­tions are her daugh­ters, the sassy Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and the child­like Polly (Robbie Lee), who she wants to have a bet­ter, eas­ier life than she’s had.  Through a mix of work and schemes she hangs on, but just bare­ly.

Things change dra­mat­i­cal­ly for Wilma and her daugh­ters when they find them­selves in the mid­dle of a bank rob­bery.  They join in and “adopt” bank rob­ber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) into their crew, decid­ing to pur­sue rob­bery as a way of life.  As they hone their craft, they also rope gen­tle­man con-artist William Baxter (William Shatner) into their work and aim for big­ger and bet­ter tar­gets.  However, the risks increase as Wilma aims for a big score, lead­ing to many close calls and shootouts.  There’s also the mat­ter of Bonney (Dick Miller), a pesky law­man who is deter­mined to bring Wilma and her clan to jus­tice by any means nec­es­sary.

This is an appeal­ing premise and Big Bad Mama deliv­ers what it promis­es on mul­ti­ple lev­els.  Part of that can be attrib­ut­ed to the screen­writ­ers: William Norton was a skilled hand at back­woods action fare like White Lightning and A Small Town In Texas while Frances Doel was Corman’s sto­ry edi­tor and a whiz at keep­ing a script tight and to the point.  As a result, the sto­ry packs in plen­ty of excite­ment into its slen­der con­fines and does so with plen­ty of wit (the dia­logue is full of hilar­i­ous one-lin­ers with a gen­uine Southern edge that prob­a­bly came from Norton).

The sto­ry is also unique­ly sat­is­fy­ing in that the wom­en dri­ve the sto­ry: Wilma runs the show and all three main female char­ac­ters par­tic­i­pate on an equal lev­el in their crim­i­nal enter­prise.  More amus­ing­ly, the wom­en also run the show in the bed­room, choos­ing who gets bed­ded and when (Skerritt and Shatner’s bemused reac­tions to being treat­ed like stud bulls are yet anoth­er source of humor in the film).

It helps that Big Bad Mama has a fan­tas­tic cast and every­one digs into their roles with a mix­ture of ener­gy and inspi­ra­tion.  Dickenson rules the roost with a con­fi­dent, wit­ty per­for­mance as the seen-it-all sin­gle mom who isn’t afraid to take on crime as a career (she’s also not shy about the nude sce­nes, a BIG source of this film’s endur­ing fame).  Sennett and Lee fare well as her daugh­ters, with Sennett offer­ing an amus­ing­ly fiery turn while Lee works a charm­ing yet sexy “baby doll” per­sona to great effect.  Skerritt shows great dead­pan comic skills as the hot­head who is con­stant­ly out­smart­ed by Wilma and Shatner turns in a sur­pris­ing­ly under­stat­ed per­for­mance that shows off his rarely-tapped knack for sly wit.  Finally, New World reg­u­lar Miller is reli­ably excel­lent (and hilar­i­ous) as the per­pet­u­al­ly exas­per­at­ed G-man on the trail of Wilma.

Finally, and most impor­tant­ly, direc­tor Steve Carver real­ly puts it across the plate.  He does every­thing a good direc­tor of a dri­ve-in flick needs to do: he keeps the pac­ing sharp, gets con­sis­tent per­for­mances from his cast, deliv­ers plen­ty of punchy action sequences and nev­er skimps on the skin.  It’s also worth not­ing that Carver gets the most out of the pro­duc­tion val­ue here, mak­ing the film look more expen­sive than it actu­al­ly was by care­ful­ly stag­ing the pro­duc­tion design in a showy but care­ful­ly-con­trolled man­ner.  Kudos must also go to edi­tor Tina Hirsch, who keeps it all rolling at a fast clip and brings a real snap to the action sce­nes (she’d use the lat­ter skill again the next year on Death Race 2000).

In short, this is one of the crown jew­els of the New World Pictures cat­a­log.  It’s excit­ing, it’s fun­ny, it’s lusty and it just plain moves.  All the­se qual­i­ties make Big Bad Mama manda­to­ry view­ing for any Corman schol­ar.

Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II [Double Feature]

Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II [Double Feature]

Two action packed, gun tot­in’ films for one price!Big Bad Mama: Sexy, Depression-era Mama (Angie Dickinson) and her daugh­ters get forced by cir­cum­stances into boot­leg­ging and bank rob­bing, and trav­el across the coun­try trailed by the law.Director: Steve CarverStars: Angie Dickinson, William Shatner, Tom SkerrittBig Bad Mama II: Mama and her daugh­ters return for a crime spree through the South as they seek to avenge the death of her husband.Director: Jim WynorskiStars: Angie Dickinson, Robert Culp