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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Devil’s Angels (1967)


Director: Daniel Haller
Writer: Charles B. Griffith
Stars: John Cassevetes, Beverly Adams, Mimsy Farmer and Maurice McEndree


Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

The landscape of American film changed in the late sixties in many ways and not only because American life changed too. Many of the things that the industry was used to and could safely rely on just weren’t the case any longer: the studios didn’t own theatres any more, television was eating heavily into ticket sales and the Production Code, which governed film ‘decency’, was increasingly being ignored. Society was in upheaval, with the civil rights movement and the counterculture, not to mention anti-Vietnam War protests. The studio heads, realising that their pictures were becoming increasingly irrelevant, eventually gave in, admitted that they were now completely out of touch and began to give large sums of money to whoever might possibly be in touch. This led to the New Hollywood of the early seventies, with the most fascinating set of movies seen in America since the pre-code era back in the early thirties. The studios didn’t get their mojo back until Jaws in 1975, arguably the first modern blockbuster.

If the big studios were akin to cruise liners, so couldn’t turn round quickly, indie filmmakers were speedboats and they could turn on a dime. Companies such as American International Pictures (A.I.P.) and filmmakers like Roger Corman, who shot many movies for them to distribute, could leap on every fad and have topical features in drive-ins in no time. To see where New Hollywood got their ideas (not to mention most of their key people), check out the indie films of the sixties. Biker flicks were just one sub-genre of exploitation but they were an important one in the late sixties and early seventies as people wanted to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. Many were carbon copies of their predecessors but others took the opportunity to explore themes that the studios weren’t willing to touch yet. Motorpsycho, from Russ Meyer, muses on PTSD; the first Billy Jack film, The Born Losers, adds prejudice against Native Americans; and, of course, Easy Rider became the definition of ‘a generation lost in space’ in 1969.

This film is relatively loose and out of control, perhaps appropriately given the subject matter, but it explores an existential crisis, with our biker heroes attempting to escape the society that oppresses them to Hole-in-the-Wall, the legendary sanctuary of Butch Cassidy, that to them becomes an impossible dream. For all that the film romanticises the outlaw biker, clearly our hero, who only wants to live and let live outside the control of the Man, it also minimises him. As we start, Cody’s motorcycle club of two hundred has already dwindled down to twenty-six; by the time the key moment arrives, during the finalĂ©, it decreases to one. Nobody else cares any more; they’re having too much fun indulging in stereotypical anti-social delinquent biker behaviour. In other words, we should approve of the outlaw biker and his wild west sense of honour and justice, but most of his riding buddies are just thugs and lowlifes whose degeneracies really do warrant the full attention of the law. It’s an interesting mixed message for 1967.

I’m watching because Devil’s Angels was mostly shot in Arizona, but that isn’t Arizona as we begin, not least because we don’t have a Pacific Ocean (until the big one hits the San Andreas). The aircraft boneyard scene may have been shot at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, but there just isn’t enough to make sure of that identification. Certainly the scenes that follow have been identified as San Pedro, CA, where Corman shot The Wild Angels a year earlier: Cabrillo Beach, Point Fermin and Gaffey Street. It seems like all the time the Skulls Motorcycle Club spends in California is focused on leaving, though. There’s nothing there any more, especially after Gage crashes his bike into a broken down car on the way to the clubhouse, leaving a man dead at the scene and a cop witness to his hit and run. Cody has his club tear down Gage’s recognisable bike into parts, pack up their inevitable collection of beer, pot and Nazi memorabilia, and peel out of there. He wants to find Hole-in-the-Wall, where they can all live in peace.
These early scenes aren’t much. It isn’t just that most of it is ruthlessly stereotypical, adding nothing to the bunch of biker movies which preceded it, not least The Wild Angels, which Corman directed (he only produced this). That picture featured a fantastic cast, including Nancy Sinatra, Diane Ladd and Michael J. Pollard, and also introduced such quintessential biker movie stars to the genre as Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern. The only star here is John Cassavetes, right before The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, at a time he tried to raise as much money as he could from acting to finance the even more indie films he wanted to direct. After him, the most recognisable actor has to be either Buck Kartalian, who played the Mel Brooks lookalike Khan in Gymkata, or Leo Gordon, a big and definitive tough guy who I recently reviewed in Night of the Grizzly. Here it’s Kartalian who plays a biker, while Gordon moves away from the dark side to play a small town sheriff, still tough but one of the good guys for a change.

What’s worst though, is that everything seems ruthlessly improvised. That approach can work wonders and, certainly, some of the most famous moments in film history were actually improvised, but all the hippie dippie dialogue here seems like the product of a copious quantity of marijuana. Surely at least some of the actors were stoned when they delivered it; perhaps even Chuck Griffith was stoned when he wrote the script. The only coherent things in this whole section are the decisions to leave the state and break out Skulls member Funky from the Lenning City Jail before they do. The latter is a good thing because Funky is a real character but most of his fellow Skulls are non-entities. When one can be distinguished from another, like with Robot, it’s because he hasn’t got a pair of brain cells to rub together and he’s used only for cheap comedic effect. Funky’s girl is a joy too, but the film does a lousy job at telling us names, so I can only assume that she’s Karen, played by Mitzi Hoag. This is early for her but later photos match up.
Is there any real structure here yet? No. And there won’t be any for quite a while. Cody and Lynn lead the way out of California, in a rather hopeful attempt to reach Hole-in-the-Wall, especially given that they don’t know where it is. If they did, they wouldn’t be driving southeast into Arizona but northeast to Wyoming, given that it’s in the Big Horn Mountains of Johnson County; the cabin at which the Hole in the Wall Gang met the Wild Bunch is preserved at the Old Trail Town museum in Cody, WY. But no, these folk don’t ask directions and just keep on riding as if fate will surely lead them to their promised land. Of course, mild things happen to spark them off on the way and they respond in rather less mild fashion. They play havoc at a grocery store, after fleecing it of beer and gas, in part because the owner obviously doesn’t want them there. When a camper knocks over one of their bikes, they pursue it, then tear it to pieces and set fire to it. It belongs to the most nonchalant couple ever: ‘Next year, we’ll get a boat,’ he tells her.

It takes almost half an hour for the film to get where it needed to go, which is Brookville in the movie and Patagonia, AZ in reality. It’s your typical small town and they arrive during the 27th annual town picnic, which means a fairground, a beauty contest and a host of other things that bored bikers are quite happy to mess with. Initially, they just sit down in the bleachers to watch the girls in bikinis up on stage. However, as soon as sides are set up by the officials panicking about what these interlopers might do to the town, we’re thrown onto the side of the bikers in an odd way: Royce, the town’s mayor, awards first prize in the beauty contest to gormless Clara Hays over the cute new girl in town, Marianne Fielding, and we join the bikers in vocal disagreement. Marianne is an important character in the movie to come as she hangs around the bikes long enough to get picked up by another annoyingly unidentified character whom I presume is Roy, played by Kipp Whitman. younger brother of Stuart Whitman.
And with Sheriff Henderson letting the Skulls stay on the beach where he can keep an eye on them, with them promptly getting hammered on stolen Coors and with Roy about to ride sweet young Marianne over to the party, you can imagine exactly what is going to happen next. Well, the picture wants you to imagine that so it can play with your prejudice against these knights of the open road, when we’re really just attuned to what we’re going to see in biker movies from A.I.P., so we find ourselves remaining on the side of the bikers. Oddly, we’re also on the side of Sheriff Henderson, because he’s a tough but honest cop who can see the big picture and play the best hand he’s dealt. He’s not going to conjure up any false charges and he’s not going to stand for them when the moronic mayor does exactly that. We almost feel sorry for the poor sheriff, stuck between a rock and a hard place that are coming together fast. Leo Gordon’s stubbornly honest performance is one of the best in the movie.

The problem is that, even if we’re surely never going to find ourselves on Mayor Royce’s side and we aren’t given a chance to get to know the people of Brookville, we can’t really pledge our allegiance to the bikers either. Cody is a complex soul, the only one of the bunch, but even he’s a wildcard. What drove a wedge between me and the Skulls started with their penchant for crap beer and escalated through their bizarre habit of not actually drinking it. So much Coors is wasted here by spraying it at other folk, pouring it over other folk or just throwing it at other folk that I began to wonder if Smokey and the Bandit was a sequel to this film, made to restock the west with Coors after the Skulls abused the entire previous stock of two states; then I remembered that they hauled it east over the Mississippi, where it couldn’t be sold legally because of its lack of preservatives. Given that these bikers behave quite well compared to previous examples of the genre, not least The Wild Angels, the film can easily be seen as underwhelming.
I often wonder, as I review these dry heat obscurities that were shot predominantly in Arizona, how locals felt about these movies being shot in their towns. That goes double for ones shot in the smaller towns dotted around the state, and double again when the subject matter is as potentially controversial as this. I wonder if the good townsfolk of Patagonia, an hour south of Tucson, knew that Corman had apparently cast real Hell’s Angels a year earlier in The Wild Angels and that that film descends into blasphemy and rape. This isn’t technically related, but it certainly plays with the same theme and in many ways could be seen as a milder remake. With most of the film set in and around Brookville, we see a lot of Patagonia, though some scenes were apparently shot in nearby small towns like Sonoita and Amado. I can’t identify those in the film, partly because the most obvious locations for material such as this weren’t built at the time, like the Longhorn Grill in Amado with its giant longhorn skull entrance, which dates to the 1970s.

However, there are two obvious landmarks to identify Brookville as Patagonia, even though neither is there any more. The first is the Stradling Museum of the Horse Inc., located directly opposite the fairground, from which we see it often, including from the top of the ferris wheel. It was founded by Anne Stradling in 1960 to celebrate the horse throughout history; she and her husband also ran a ranch and a motel in town but, realising that none of these were sustainable, she eventually donated her collection, appraised at $10m, to the Hubbard Museum in Ruidoso, NM, in 1986. The other is the Big Steer, a bar that is featured prominently, both inside and out. This closed in 2001 and was remembered shortly afterwards by Paul ‘Sonny’ Showalter, a Patagonia Marshal’s deputy for 27 years, as ‘a fighting bar’. I wonder if it was a fighting bar in 1967 when the Skulls invaded or if that reputation came later. It’s sadly amusing to realise that we see it fictionally here as it apparently really was.
The Arizona countryside is a good reason to watch Devil’s Angels, but it’s not the only one, even if this is a relatively minor entry in the biker cinema of the era. There are some long shots where bikers ride right through the river to get to the beach and they look perfect: moving paintings of peace and tranquility raped by the engines of the new visitors. Richard Moore’s cinematography is an odd mixture of glorious long shots and less impressive close ups. He was a major name, having co-founded Panavision in 1953 only to leave it nine years later because he didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk. As cheesy as much of the clearly improvised dialogue gets, there are some good lines to elevate the material. ‘Toujours l’amour. Tonight, for sure,’ made me grin and the movie could be summed up by Cody’s girl, Lynn, when she suggests that ‘There’s no place that’s got good things that doesn’t have cops.’ I enjoyed the campfire ghost story too, about a ‘motorsickle cop’ and the vengeful ghost of a Skull.

The most memorable moments aren’t always the ones that should stand out, though. I got stuck on the fact that Coors in 1967 was apparently bought in soup-style cans on cardboard trays. Times have certainly changed. The music underlines that too, with a lot of pschedelic pop and surf music that doesn’t seem to fit today with hard rockin’ bikers in leathers. The theme tune is by Jerry and the Portraits, a band who don’t seem to have recorded anything else, while the rest of the score is by the Arrows, the backing band of Davie Allan, who specialised in soundtracks and recorded many for Corman’s biker flicks; his most successful song, Blues Theme, from The Wild Angels, was one of the first that Eddie van Halen learned to play. Some of the quirkier moments revolve around one of the Skull ladies, whose name I missed, if it was ever announced. She really wants to get pregnant but hasn’t decided yet on who the father should be; she eventually figures it out on a ouija board on the beach, while everyone else is partying.
The crew all did better work elsewhere. Corman only produced, which presumably meant making sure the film wrapped on time and within budget so he could feed it up to A.I.P. Director Daniel Haller was Corman’s art director of choice for years; he shot most of his Poe pictures, for a start, and handled the production design as well. This was only his second film as a director, following Die, Monster, Die! in 1965, a vague adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space. He’d return to bikers again with The Wild Racers and to Lovecraft with The Dunwich Horror, but he spent most of his directorial career working for television, finishing up in 1988 with Road Lord, an episode of The Highwayman shot here in Arizona. Writer Charles B. ‘Chuck’ Griffith was another Corman regular; most of his filmography is for Corman movies, dating back to Gunslinger in 1956. He was responsible for perhaps the most famous three pictures that Corman ever made: A Bucket of Blood in 1959, The Little Shop of Horrors a year later and Death Race 2000 in 1975.

I can’t quite say that for all the cast though. John Cassavetes certainly did better work elsewhere and not just on screen; his three Oscar nominations were as an actor, a scriptwriter and a director respectively. He’s easily the best actor in the film as Cody but it’s hardly his best role. Cody’s girl, Lynn, is played by Beverly Adams, best known either for her role in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini or for marrying her hairdresser on Torture Garden, the film she made after this; that hairdresser was Vidal Sassoon. Honestly, I was more impressed by Mimsy Farmer, who makes Marianne a believable picture of almost innocence. Farmer had a highly unusual career, mostly in Italy; giallos like Four Flies on Grey Velvet and The Perfume of the Lady in Black; Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat; and the war movie Code Name: Wild Geese. I liked Mitzi Hoag too, as Funky’s girl, Karen, but I never quite bought into her being part of this scene. She’s quirky, so fits with Funky, but just too nice to be associated with the Skulls. You could take her home to meet the parents.
Buck Kartalian is fantastic as Funky. I needed to get past his Mel Brooks impression in Gymkata and this was a great way to do it. His career is an odd mixture of legendary failures like Myra Breckinridge, Octaman, Gymkata and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas and big successes like Cool Hand Luke, Planet of the Apes, The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Rock; the sheer versatility needed to play in that list is on show here. Never mind Cassavetes as the lynchpin of the film, as solid as he is when he’s not apparently stoned out of his brain, it’s Kartalian and Leo Gordon who shine brightest here. And that’s odd because Devil’s Angels, like all the biker flicks of the era, was inherently about youth and its potential for societal change, but Kartalian and Gordon are the oldest actors in the lead cast; born in 1922, they were seven years older than Cassavetes and a decade or two older than anyone else. Maybe that’s the biggest problem; the best things are the ones that don’t count and the things it needed didn’t show up. Like good examples of the new generation.

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