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.