Wednesday 26 May 2010

Hells Angels '69 (1969)

Director: Lee Madden
Stars: Tom Stern, Jeremy Slate, Conny Van Dyke and Steve Sandor
This promised plenty but strangely delivered in other ways. An American International Picture, quickly churned out to cash in on the success of Easy Rider, though it has more in common with Hells Angels on Wheels from a couple of years earlier, it features a whole slew of colourful characters: Sonny Barger, Terry the Tramp, Skip, Tiny, Magoo and the rest of the Oakland Hell's Angels. However it also stars the guys who wrote the story, Tom Stern and Jeremy Slate, whose names are as tough as they'd like to be. One looks like David Letterman trying to be James Woods, the other like a cross between Doug McClure and Dick Miller, and they play a believable pair of half-brothers who have certain rather dubious plans. They host a party and promptly leave it, announcing loudly that they're going to Acapulco, but switch out their Corvette for bikes and dress up in Salem Witches jackets, so they can arrange a run-in with the Angels.

It's all a con, you see, because Chuck and Wes Patterson plan to rob Caesar's Palace. This isn't Ocean's Eleven and they sure don't look like the Rat Pack, but they have thought things out nonetheless. The first step is to get in with the Angels and the second step is to talk them into a run up to Vegas, both of which go off without a hitch, after a bit of knee scraping and fist fighting and such. They even acquire themselves a girl, Betsy, who they buy for a pack of smokes. She's the only one of the bunch who isn't a real biker, given that she ran away from her family's Colorado ranch at fifteen and just hasn't worked out anything better yet. They drive straight through Vegas, though we do get a brief look at the 1969 Vegas Strip, showing us just how long Caesar's Palace, Circus Circus and the Flamingo have been there. They head on through to see Tiny's aunt, who hasn't seen him in years and thinks he's in Stanford. She gets a wake up call!
The third step is to pull their job and they have it pretty cleverly worked out. They're not too greedy but they're plenty ballsy, setting up the Hell's Angels on one side and the mob on the other, given that that's who was running the town at the time. What's most amazing to me is the fact that AIP managed to set this all up, because that's really the Oakland Angels and that's really Caesar's Palace. It's not easy to film in a major casino on the Strip, even if you're someone on the level of an MGM so someone at AIP must have known someone important to get in that deep. They even set up a fun scene with the management at Caesar's Palace who don't like bikers so try to very politely tell them to piss off, hardly the greatest image for a major tourist attraction, especially given that they cave under the tiniest amount of pressure and let them in after all. If there's anything worse than making a bad call, it's not even being consistent about it.

While this is far from a good movie, it's an interesting piece, though surprisingly it's less about the what and more about the who and the where. The looks we get at the Strip forty years ago are fascinating and we end up out in the desert for a lackadaisical chase that merely highlights the scenery. Sonny and his Angels were notable folks in 1969, about to become even more infamous in December at the Rolling Stones free festival at the Altamont Speedway. They don't come across as particularly dangerous here though, however tall some of them are, however much facial hair they have between them and however drunk they get. They do some hellraising but not a heck of a lot, especially as the only old lady who even speaks is the one played by an actress, Conny Van Dyke. They're certainly heroes rather than villains though, albeit complete outsider heroes, perhaps taking advantage of an opportunity for good publicity on their terms.
In fact there really aren't any villains here, which makes it a rather strange picture. The Angels are seen in generally good terms, the heroes are anti-heroes who do their crimes for kicks, the heroine is a runaway who's trying to find redemption in love. It doesn't end up about the money, at least not in any way we expect. Even the cops are decent, though we only spend time with one of them, a detective played by G D Spradlin, who has trouble getting his lines out here but went on to The Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now and even Ed Wood, where he played the Baptist minister who finances Plan 9 from Outer Space. The closest thing to a bad guy is the sanctimonious asshole behind the desk at Caesar's Palace and he's hardly a bad guy, just a waste of space doing his job. Bizarrely, for any component part of this fim you'd be better off going elsewhere, but to see them all together this may be the only place to choose from.

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