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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Angel Unchained (1970)


Director: Lee Madden
Writer: Jeffrey Alladin Fiskin, based on a story by Leo Madden and Jeffrey Alladin Fiskin
Stars: Don Stroud, Luke Askew, Larry Bishop, Tyne Daly and Aldo Ray


Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

Angel Unchained is a real product of its time. It’s the standard story, dating back at least as far as Seven Samurai, of a battle with three sides: one defending a second against the third. Here, however, the sides aren’t samurai, peasants and bandits; they’re all grabbed from the counterculture revolution of the American late sixties. Taking the place of the samurai are the Exiles Motorcycle Club, an odd good guy role for bikers at the time. Then again, these are a bit more restrained than the usual bikers you’d expect to be in an American International picture, though they never entirely shed their bad boy image; they’re just on better behaviour. Instead of peasants, they’re called in to fight on behalf of a hippie commune, of all things, which is clearly unable to defend itself because all its members are pacifists. More appropriately for the end of the counterculture, the bikers are tasked with defending the hippies against the normal people, here represented by fist fighting cowboys in dune buggies. Yeah, it’s that sort of movie!

Actually, they may have conjured up the cowboys because the town these townsfolk want to keep the filthy hippies out of is Lehi, Arizona, carved out of the desert because Brigham Young wanted a Mormon settlement in the Salt River Valley and tasked Daniel W. Jones to found one. Fist fighting Mormons in dune buggies is even more far fetched than cowboys, but such intolerance would have a little more historical accuracy; when Jones invited Native Americans to live with them in Lehi, half the colony promptly left to found their own Indian-free settlement instead: St. David in Cochise County. Lehi is now north Mesa and it’s in Lehi, outside the Lehi Market, that these sides first meet. The Angel of the title, which is a role as much as a name, stops to fill up his bike at the gas station/barber shop. Before he leaves, a truck shows up to do likewise and the cowboys tell the hippies that the pump is suddenly closed. Angel picks his side and, next thing we know, he’s on his way to the commune with Merilee the hippie seated behind him.

Angel and Merilee are two of our three leads and they’re played by the stars of the film, both of whom gained notice through roles in Clint Eastwood movies. Angel is a very laid back Don Stroud, who had played a major role in Coogan’s Bluff. He’d started out body doubling in surfing scenes in Hawaiian Eye, before moving on to regular acting and gradually working up to the roles for which he’s best known today: a priest in The Amityville Horror and his Bond villain in License to Kill. I may still know him best from television, as he played Capt. Pat Chambers to Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer in two separate shows. Merilee is Tyne Daly, so known for television, having won four Emmys for Cagney and Lacey, that we sometimes forget she had a film career too. This was her second feature and her first as a lead; her break would come six years later playing Dirty Harry’s rookie partner in The Enforcer, while stardom showed up with Mary Beth Lacey in 1981. They’re both young here, playing an odd couple, though less odd as the film runs on.

Angel, you see, has left the Exiles, because he’s going through some sort of quiet identity crisis. His first words in the picture are a reply to Pilot, the club’s leader, who’s wondering if he’s getting too old for the life: ‘I don’t know. Too old for something.’ One fight scene later and he’s handing his colours to Pilot because he’s strung out and wants to ride. Alone. Apparently he rides east, as that fight scene takes place at Legend City, Phoenix’s very own theme park, which was open from 1963 to 1983 but was demolished and is now SRP corporate offices at the Papago Park Center. Legend City was never a firm financial success, but many locals, including my wife, remember it fondly. Watching Angel Unchained is my first opportunity to see what she’s talked about, even if these bikers mostly hang out in the kids’ area to the northwest of the park, playing and fighting on the helicopter, the merry-go-round and the roller-coaster. Pilot and Angel end up on one of the trains which circled the park. It looks like a lot of fun, even in daylight.
So, Angel heads east from Phoenix to Lehi, stopping at gas stations and cafés in between that, through the magic of the movies, are not actually in between; the Herb Jordan Chevron service station at which Angel briefly works is in Apache Junction, for instance, on Highway 60, and the last sign he passes before he arrives in Lehi may well be pointing its way to Superstition Skies Restaurant, which is still open in Apache Junction. Maybe he just rode back and forth trying to find himself, man, in an existential haze of self-examination. By the time he gets to Lehi, picks up Tyne Daly and drops her off at the commune, which, uncoincidentally, seems to be on the road to Apache Junction, Jonathan Tremaine, the commune leader, asks him if he wants to stay. His response, get this, is ‘What does stay mean?’ That’s surely one of the most deceptively stupid lines I’ve ever heard in a movie, because it sounds utterly throwaway but is actually rather deep and it could be argued that the entire rest of the movie is a riff on that one single line.

Of course, if that throwaway line is really deep then maybe some of the other throwaway lines are really deep too and I’m just too naïve to acknowledge them. After a traditional romantic montage with Angel and Merilee, merely one that has them plant things, chop wood and feed chickens, they go skinnydipping. She tells him, ‘Angel, you are hung up in old ways of seeing.’ I would ponder on whether Jeffrey Alan Fiskin was as high as a kite when he wrote this script, based on a story he wrote with Lee Madden, but he was credited as Jeffrey Alladin Fiskin, so he may have been so high that he couldn’t even spell his own adopted hippie name. That could explain why there’s so little dialogue and, when people do speak, they use very simple words. Five year olds could read this script; they just wouldn’t understand it. It could also explain why, when the rednecks show up to drive their dune buggies through the hippies’ garden and Angel stabs one with a pitchfork, it prompts a war that is immediately scheduled for the following week.
And, of course, this is where the obvious suggestion comes in. How can a bunch of pacifists fight these redneck bullies? Well, they can’t, of course, so could the Exiles be their proxy and fight on their behalf? Or, to use the language of the glorious poster, pit ‘the Cycle Freaks and the Dune Buggy Straights’ in ‘a war for survival’. Yeah, that does overplay it somewhat, because this disappoints on the action front. There’s the opening brawl between the Exiles and the Gamblers, which the cops interrupt after a mere couple of minutes. Then there’s the climactic showdown, the war that the entire movie has been building up to and which constitutes the one and only reason we even have bikers to watch, which everyone apparently agrees, off the cuff, will end with first blood. No, it really doesn’t work as an action movie; if it works at all, it works from the perspective of Angel, the one and only character to have an actual story arc. He starts the movie lost but may end the movie found. At least, I hope so.

Certainly, for all that Angel is on an odd journey from biker to hippie, we don’t really delve into any of these subcultures. Perhaps the Exiles get the most depth, as there’s one good scene when Angel goes back to their clubhouse and they react with disdain. The concept of ownership is raised too, Angel’s mama, Jackie, being passed down to Shotgun, who cut out ‘their’ tattoo from her chest. They do try to behave on the commune, but struggle with the idea. The hippies are vegetarians and pacifists, but we’re never let in on any of the reasons why. And we’re never given any reason why the cowboys hate hippies; all the latter do is drive into town once in a while to buy supplies, so you’d think the former would be thankful for the income. No wonder Lehi Market looks derelict on Google Maps! It was on Horne, opposite what was Lehi School in 1970 and is now an annex of the Mesa Historical Museum. The Fort Utah memorial on the corner of Horne and Lehi Dr, next to the Mormon church, is in the background in a few shots.
Beyond playing host to the pivotal first meeting of all the sides in this strange war, Lehi Market also plays host to the most surreal scene in the entire picture. Tremaine needs supplies from town and, to get them, he needs the Exiles to play chaperone. Promised beer, half a dozen bikers accompany the hippies’ colourful truck on over to Lehi Market, where the local sheriff sits himself down on a rocking chair and Pilot saunters over to join him. They rock back and forth and banter likewise, calmly watching it all unfold. ‘Kind of hot out here,’ suggests Pilot as the cowboys pick on the hippies. ‘It’s been known to,’ replies the sheriff. When it escalates, Pilot adds, ‘Local boys are kind of playful.’ ‘Not much happens here,’ replies the sheriff. ‘Got to make your own fun.’ The sheriff is Aldo Ray and this is his only scene. He had a habit of landing odd roles; another Arizona movie won him an Adult Film Association of America award as Best Actor! That was 1979’s Sweet Savage, a porno flick shot at Apacheland, in which his was a non-sexual role.

If Aldo Ray is the most famous actor in the film, albeit as his career started to spiral downwards because of alcoholism and medical issues, there are others of note early on in theirs, beyond Stroud and Daly. Larry Bishop had made a few films for A.I.P. but nothing of real note yet. His time would come much later when, with the aid of Quentin Tarantino, he would write, produce, direct and star in 2008’s Hell Ride. He’s a lot of fun here. Jonathan Tremaine is played by Luke Askew, who had a few notable movies behind him in the three years he’d been acting: Cool Hand Luke, The Green Berets and Easy Rider for a start. He’s said about his acting technique that, ‘I don’t do anything really; I’m just there.’ That rings true here, not just for him but for all the leads, as the best moments are those where Don Stroud, Luke Askew and Larry Bishop converse, only for one to break into laughter while the others grin. I could never tell if they were scripted or improvised; I’m leaning towards the latter because they’re such honest outbreaks of joy.
There are other characters of note, but not because of anything they do, just because they look weird enough to be acknowledged. Two bikers especially fit that bill: those played by T. Max Graham and Bill McKinney. Graham, still credited under his real name of Neil Moran, plays Magician, because really what else would you call a biker who wears a top hat and has his colours on the back of a cape rather than a denim waistcoat? He’s best known for his narrations, his voice elevating documentaries and commercials, but he did land some interesting acting roles like the Boss in Eraserhead and the priest in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil. McKinney plays a more traditional ‘live for the moment’ type of biker, but his huge green goggles stand him out for attention. He’s one of the actors you know without knowing it; his credits includes dozens of films you’ve probably seen, including seven with Clint Eastwood, plus a run across the entire quality spectrum from She Freak to The Green Mile.

However, there is also a Native American character, known simply as Injun, who lives on the hippie commune and mixes up secret ingredients to make very special cookies. Many watching might appreciate that A.I.P. actually hired a Native American to play one, without realising that Pedro Regas was born Panagiotis Thomas Regaskos in Goranoi, Greece. He was actually sent to Hollywood by Mary Pickford, who saw him on the Broadway stage. He followed her advice, way back in the silent era, and started a career which ran for almost half a century. His race seemed to change with each picture, playing Mexicans, Egyptians and Arabs, not to mention Indians of both types. He was often uncredited and, when he was, the films weren’t always the best. The Picture of Dorian Gray? Viva Zapata!? For Whom the Bell Tolls? All uncredited. The Madmen of Mandoras, which became They Saved Hitler’s Brain? Credited and as the Mandoran president too! Angel Unchained was his final film and I’m happy that he was credited, even as just Injun. He was fun.
Really, though, while this film is of higher quality than The Madmen of Mandoras, it’s not much to speak of. It’s an odd movie with a really odd pace and it’s nothing like we might expect it to be. A few memorable scenes aside, it’s where this picture was shot that’s more notable than what was actually shot there. It’s a rare scene that isn’t outside and the entire film was shot here in Arizona, so there’s scenery everywhere. The Superstition Mountains deserved their own credit, just like the Dirty Dozen of Arizona, the local motorcycle club whose members constituted most of the Exiles. Rather like how they side with Angel in the film, the club was split on whether to take part, but club president Billy Burr decided to do it for ‘free dope and beer’. Club member Nic a Tic looked back at the film online, suggesting that he and Bill McKinney were so stoned during the opening fight that they actually hit each other but didn’t notice and that Don Stroud did Marlon Brando impressions for hours on the last night. It’s Arizona flavour throughout.

References:
Dirty Dozen History (Nic a Tic)
The Funset Strip (Dave Driscoll)

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