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July 2, 2010

Tuesday , July 6th 8pm

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Wild Angels (1966)


“They hunt in a pack, like wolves on wheels!”

This week’s Cine Meccanica film review brought to you by the good people at Falcon Motorcycles. Check out their other film reviews and their sick bikes HERE
Movie Review: THE WILD ANGELS
Posted on Jul.27 09 by Big Book of Biker Flicks in the category Movie Mondays

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“The picture you are about to see will shock and perhaps anger you. Although the events and characters are fictitious, the story is a reflection of our times.” — from the prologue to The Wild Angels

Marlon Brando had scored with The Wild One, Anthony Quinn had staged The Wild Party (1956) and Elvis Presley had gone Wild in the Country (1961) by the time Roger Corman kick-started the big screen’s cycle-gang machinery with The Wild Angels… By then, filmgoers had also been treated to the likes of Wild Women of Wongo (prehistoric cheesecake, from 1958), The Wild Ride (early Jack Nicholson, from 1960), Wild Guitar (show-business shenanigans, from 1962), and Wild Is My Love (Russian roulette, college-boy style, from 1963).

Biker Group: The Hells Angels
Leader: Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda)

The constant among these titles is not the motorcycle — although Arch Hall, Jr.’s riding is more impressive than his musicianship in Wild Guitar — but rather the ticket-selling magnetism of a particular term. More than 20 such variants on wild surface in Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, a perennial reference work first published in 1983, and practically any movie-trade almanac or Cine McNuggets thumbnail-reference book will stack column upon column of movies that have staked their marquee appeal upon the electrifying promise of the word W-I-L-D in red block letters two feet tall. “Well, if I was trying to couch The Wild Angels in any historical, culturally wide-awake context, I’d say I was coming directly off The Wild One, which of course wrote the book on what a biker picture should have to say for itself,” Wild Angels producer-director Roger Corman told us in 2000. “But the franker truth is, a movie with wild in its title has a proven better chance, especially if the movie delivers the goods.”

Well, this one delivers — even if its title during shooting title was the wild-less All the Fallen Angels — adopting a you-are-there style to chronicle the rampages of a purported Hell’s Angels faction at large around Venice, California. The glory-stomping grounds are authentic, and so are many of the backup players; only in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) has this all-American mockery of Italy’s Venice looked seedier or more forbidding. Charles B. Griffith’s screenplay (allegedly reworked by future auteur Peter Bogdanovich, a new Corman associate at the time) The Wild Angels is more a pageant of Hell’s Angels tribal lore — each brutal anecdote is sharply observed, if exaggerated — than any attempt at narrative coherence. Coherence, for that matter, is irrelevant to a picture whose leading character envisions freedom as merely one escape hatch after another in a headlong course of misadventure.

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Cast of 1966 Wild Angeles included (clockwise from the top) Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Lou Procopio, Joan Shawlee, Marc Cavell and Coby Denton

Three years after The Wild One and nine years before The Wild Angels, producer Alex Gordon and director Edward L. Cahn had taken a half-hearted stab at spinning off a subgenre of cycle-mob movies with Motorcycle Gang , covered elsewhere in this book. This development occurred, significantly, at American International Pictures, which as usual was first if not foremost at making the box office an alluring and preferably forbidden gathering-place for teenage America. Motorcycle Gang never escaped the gravitational pull of the larger J.D. (as in juvenile delinquency) genre, but it planted in Corman, a younger talent in the AIP circle, bigger ambitions yet to develop. “I doubt that I could’ve done it any better if I’d done Motorcycle Gang,” Corman said, “because although the interest was there, the time was not right. The Wild One had said all there was to say for a good long while, and the nature of the real gangs, as they evolved from the ’50s on into the ’60s, came to make even The Wild One look quaint by comparison. So we really needed the 1960s to give us the distance and the perspective, and to present us with a social and cultural climate where we could feel freer to challenge the film industry’s repressive code of institutionalized censorship.”

So, when the time was right, came The Wild Angels, in which Peter Fonda’s surly, inarticulate Heavenly Blues emerges to make Marlon Brando’s presence in The Wild One seem chivalrous by comparison. Blues’ idea of liberty is simply doing what he wants, when he wants, where he wants, how he wants, and then of slipping away to the next altercation, waving a swastika or an upraised middle finger as might suit the occasion.

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Joint (Lou Procopio, center) and Bull (Coby Denton, right), are among those payig their respects to Gaysh (Diane Ladd, in veil), the companion of the recently desceased Loser (Bruce Dern, not pictured).

Though conceived at some point, at least in part, as a star vehicle — itself a quaint, Old Hollywood-style concept — for the son of Henry Fonda and the daughter of Frank Sinatra, The Wild Angels makes little use of Nancy Sinatra beyond a welcome measure of tough-chick posturing. (According to some sources, Fonda was bumped up to the top male role after West Side Story’s George Chakiris balked at the notion of all that bike riding and split.) Corman explained that the Sinatra casting was just a matter of cashing in on her hit-record career, which had established her more as a fashion plate for miniskirts and man-stomping boots than as any kind of singer. At least she looks the part, wisely keeping mum most of the time.

Drugs, strong drink, orgies by consent and/or force, and turf wars are the stuff on which Heavenly Blues’ mob thrives. Bruce Dern lends a touch of dramatic depth as Loser, Blues’ best pal, whose death at the hands of the law — while attempting to steal a police cycle — prompts an elaborate free-for-all funeral. Rather than have the corpse lie appropriately in state, the gang makes Loser a prop at his own ceremonies, a reefer dangling from his lips, after they have trashed the chapel and given the preacher (Frank Maxwell) a severe bullyragging. Blues’ attempt at a eulogy deteriorates into a rambling diatribe on What Freedom Means to Me, the manifesto of a spoiled-rotten brat grown dangerous. In the film’s most impressive sequence, Blues leads a procession from the church to a graveyard, where the intended burial turns instead into a forced confrontation with the enraged townspeople.

Fonda is just what the role requires, a virtual model of self-contradictions from his fashion-plate good looks to the contemptuous set of his jaw. Acting ability is beside the point, the point here being to present a self-absorbed character whose existence is a hollow procession of defiant poses and fast getaways. Blues’ one articulate complaint is that “there’s nowhere to go,” a late-in-the-game realization that screenwriter Griffith can only have absorbed from a fable fundamental to existentialist thinking: Ever hear the one about the guy who didn’t even know he was alive until he woke up dead one morning?

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Sonny Barger, real-life president of the Oakland, California, Hell’s Angels chapter, insists that no real Hells Angels ever appeared in The Wild Angels: “We sued ’em for a million dolars for saying there were Hell’s Angels in the movies,” he says. “We ended up settling for ten thousand.”

Roger Corman has never denied the exploitative purposes of The Wild Angels, which of course made most of its money as an attraction for rowdy crowds who found such antisocial on-screen behavior safely exhilarating. But the film in its day also infuriated many of the real-world Hell’s Angels, who complained of its defamatory aspects. Primary among those was Sonny Barger, longtime president of the Oakland Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club at the time, who’d go on to considerable big-screen fame himself in several biker pictures. When we visited with Barger a couple of years ago, during his national tour to promote the autobiographical book Hell’s Angel (William Morrow, 2000), he insisted that no Hell’s Angels ever appeared in The Wild Angels. “Actually, we sued ‘em for a million dollars for saying there were Hell’s Angels in the movie,” Barger recalled. “We ended up settling for ten thousand. And I saw him [Corman] and Peter Fonda on a program the other day about motorcyclists, and he still to this day claims there were real Hell’s Angels in there. And he says, `You know there is, because they settled for ten thousand dollars.’  “That guy’s a jerk. And so’s Peter Fonda, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have any more use for Peter than I do for Jane, you know.”

In addition to the disagreement over the participation of authentic Hell’s Angels in the film, there are also, all these years later, split opinions on whether The Wild Angels bears accepting as a valid social-problem picture. One school of thought is represented by the critic and historian Danny Peary, who finds it “a despicable film that thrives on brutality, vulgarity [and] cheap thrills” (see Peary’s blessedly opinionated Guide for the Film Fanatic, published in 1986). On the other hand, The Wild Angels — along with another of AIP’s youth-in-revolt thrillers, 1968’s Wild in the Streets — has enjoyed a perfectly respectable afterlife as a teaching tool in college-level sociology courses. Angels’ uncomplicated documentary-like structure is made to order for classroom discussion, and its frenzied camerawork and nerve-wracking guitar-distortion score seem almost to have anticipated the epidemic attention-span deficiency brought on by a culture that offers too many choices and insufficient time in which to choose wisely.

Like The Wild One and any number of lesser J.D. pictures, The Wild Angels owes its existence to such Depression-era kids-gone-wrong dramas as Dead End and They Made Me a Criminal. But The Wild Angels retains a provocative relevance noticeably greater than that of its distant ancestors.

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“Blues’ Theme,” The Wild Angels’ throbbing instrumental theme song, roared into the national Top 40 in late summer of ’67, peaking at No. 37 on the Billboard magazine chart. It was Davie Allan and the Arrows’ only major hit.

The most lifelike portrayals come from Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, cornerstone talents with the Corman stock company; their daughter, Laura Dern, would emerge during the 1990s as an acclaimed screen player. Frank Maxwell is genuinely affecting as the beleaguered minister. Perhaps the most interesting bit of casting comes with Joan Shawlee, playing an amoral mother figure called Mama Monahan. Fans of TV’s classic Dick Van Dyke Show — which was running weekly at the same time The Wild Angels hit America’s screens — knew her as Pickles, the wife of Morey Amsterdam’s character, Buddy Sorrell.

The Wild Angels remains the linchpin of Peter Fonda’s slow-burn career as a movie star, conventionally defined in a convention-busting genre. Nearly two generations after the breakthrough, Fonda still regards The Wild Angels with affectionate modesty. “I suspect The Wild Angels did me more good than I did for it,” Fonda told us in 1997. “But together we launched a bona fide genre — not just a subgenre, but a genre all unto itself, however limited. And it gave me a theme song, which still strikes a chord today. A very distorted chord, I might add.”

Mike Curb and Davie Allan wrote The Wild Angels’ theme song, “Blues’ Theme,” as a vehicle for the emerging fuzztone style of guitar-whanging, in which intolerable levels of electronic distortion would be used deliberately as an attention-getting gimmick. The Beatles had already piloted a fuzztone bass effect on the Rubber Soul album, but Allan brought this style to the lead guitar like a Duane Eddy on steroids, creating an irresistibly obnoxious sound well-suited to Peter Fonda’s character.

Propelled by the film’s success and influential L.A.-area airplay from disc jockey Casey Kasem (himself a lesser-light presence in the biker-flick genre), “Blues’ Theme” would, by 1967, establish Davie Allan & The Arrows as the country’s top-selling rock-instrumental group — a pretty sharp accomplishment for a repetitive piece that amounts to little more than a 12-bar blues with hog-revving sound effects. Although never again a huge hitmaker, Allan and his music continued to turn up in movies, including the wacky 1967 documentary, Mondo Hollywood.

– Review courtesy of Falcon Motorcycles

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