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In the late sixties, Roger Corman turned from 'safe' genre fare to more dangerous material, the 'youth' problem dramas that had been given the exploitation treatment in the decade before. His first real breakout non-horror film, The Wild Angels, inaugurated an entire new subgenre and showcased the Great Director Corman, the artist that the Pinchpenny Producer Corman rarely allowed to emerge.
Biker Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) pulls his closest buddy Loser (Bruce Dern) from his oil-rig job and gathers the Venice Chapter of the Hell's Angels for a road trip to recover Loser's stolen chopper motorcycle, rumored to be in a desert bordertown called Mecca. While the rest of the bunch party in a canyon oasis, watched over by the highway patrol, Blues and a few picked bikers invade Mecca and start a fight with local Mexican Americans. Loser steals a cop's Electra Glide and is shot in the back for his trouble; his girlfriend Gaysh (Diane Ladd) and Blues' 'old lady' Mike (Nancy Sinatra) engineer a bustout from the prison ward - even though Loser is sure to die without medical aid. As the authorities close in, Blues is increasingly troubled: he wants to defy 'the man' and his corrupt system, but besides an undefined rage, he can't pin down his own feelings about anything.
The Wild Angels starts brilliantly, with loner rebel Fonda introduced as a new icon, an antisocial Shane who frightens children. Leaving behind his former stock company of actors, Corman casts the stars of A Bucket of Blood (Barboura Morris and Dick Miller) as straight members of the establishment, cowering before the threat of the biker hero.
With a new cameraman to replace his stalwart Floyd Crosby, Corman paints an accurate picture of the Hells' Angels, and particularly the back-county 'inland empire' desert communities south of Palm Springs circa 1966. Corman's older cheap filmmaking habits are forgotten as the Panavision camera shows us the canals of Venice, California long before the condos moved in, and the desert as the untraveled semi-frontier it still resembled. Corman applies his good instincts of where to place the camera, to a loose plot that allows free-form improvisation. Shot after shot seems to cooperate with this approach. The desert skies darken as the Angels invade the lower desert, and an openness to positive randomness provides many nice touches. A bit of business between Dern and a horse has a refreshing accidental quality.
But most of all, The Wild Angels is truly dangerous, in a way that its copycat biker followup films are not. This is 1966, and American feature films just didn't tell stories like this one. Antisocial outlaws were criminals after money, which straight society could understand and morally pigeonhole. The original The Wild One was already a fossil, unable to do anything more shocking than give Marlon Brando a bad attitude and show his boys busting up a town like cowpokes off a trail drive. Fonda's Heavenly Blues is only partly alienated; his mean streak is backed up by a power complex and a bullheaded disdain for value systems. This is shown right up front. The boy on the tricycle (a biker in the pupal stage?) is restrained from running wild by his loving mother: Blues isn't under the protection of anyone: he's male instinct without any restraint whatsoever. Here's a 'hero' who basically condones killing cops and believes in the personal freedom to rape and murder as mood dictates. The only justification he claims is rejection of the society that tries to restrain him.
The anarchy that ensues was shocking (and relevant) in 1966 because just a couple of years before, the American culture's idea of a big debate about youth was whether or not the Beatles' hair was too long. Corman's longhairs wear Iron Crosses and swastikas. His biker sluts party in the desert in their underwear. They orgy in the cactus, in flophouses, and in a church after assaulting the minister. For most of the picture, only the briefest of hints (a radio snippet with news about Vietnam) place this rebellion in any context.
Unlike the simple formulas of later biker epics, The Wild Angels plays fair with its extreme content. The Angels are a pack of negative attitudes, unromantic and unenlightened. Their attack on the Mexicans in Mecca starts with ethnic taunts usually associated with the lowest of Western baddies. The straights, especially the cops and doctors at the hospital, are decently trying to help Loser. We aren't really happy to see the Hell's Angels 'rescue him,' especially when one of them molests a nurse (a black nurse, pointedly) during the raid. The tension rises as the uncouth rescuers stare stupidly while their comrade bleeds to death, with a baby crying and nobody in charge except a leader with no judgement. Betraying his group every bit as much as Pike Bishop betrays his own Wild Bunch, Blues is fundamentally as fascist as his leather uniform and his Nazi insignia. He preaches power, but the only comfort he has for his folly is the loud roar of his chopper - while cats yowl in the background.
For a supposedly radical statement, The Wild Angels makes an excellent case for the straights. At the ideological showdown2, a sympathetic preacher (Frank Maxwell, of Corman's other classic, The Intruder) is willing to say final words over Loser atop an altar draped with a swastika, only to have an obstinate Blues reject his God and trash his church. The final ugly scene in the wrecked pews and desecrated altar is possibly the best Corman's ever filmed, a truly chaotic mess of dancing, drinking and blasphemy, where the action not only seems improvised, but out of control. The corpse is pulled from its coffin for fun and games, and the widow, the only character to whom we have a sentimental attachment, is raped. The leader who wanted to do right by his best friend just lets it all happen, shoving his steady girl away and taking another behind the altar for a quick lay. It's strong stuff even now. In 1966 many a neighborhood exhibitor must have thought the world was coming to an end.
Peter Fonda finally found his correct 'look' in this movie, even if he never became an expressive actor. Likewise Nancy Sinatra's inability to play a scene does little harm because of her nice switch between biker chick and a good Mary Tyler Moore imitation.1 Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd's acting is excellent in more emotionally demanding parts. A pre- Bonnie & Clyde Michael J. Pollard, and a post- The Apartment Joan Shawlee fit in well. The rest of the gang is alarmingly realistic, even if the bikers never look quite rasty enough (where are the fat bikers?) and their biker chicks are uniformly too attractive.
In his autobiography, Roger Corman proudly outlines the film's status as an 'outlaw' affair, with cops trailing the production through the desert and trying to find ways of shutting it down, all the while outfoxed by Corman's band of filmmakers, actors, and real Hell's Angels. The keybook for the film has literally dozens of behind the scenes photos that would have made a wonderful extra: Later to become an accomplished director himself, film critic and director's assistant Peter Bogdanovich crashed the majority of the 'bts' shots, always hogging the frame and posing as if he's in charge. Usually a keybook is a pretty random asssortment of stills, but Bogdanovich shows up at least three times as often as does Corman! As Corman's assistant he surely was heavily involved in the shooting, but the impression given is that he buttonholed the still man for his own promotional purposes (is Savant feeling guilty about his own instincts?). Another up-and-coming Corman acolyte, editor Monte Hellman, apparently couldn't compete with Bogdanovich's skill at nailing the publicity. And forget about a promotional presence for Corman's eternal writer Charles B. Griffith. Although Corman is generous with praise, Griffith never seems to get enough credit for his dozens of ingenious scripts. This one is a model of on-target simplicity.
The Wild Angels pretty much inaugurated the 'youth revolution' subgenre, the rough pictures that supplanted slop like Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter with fare such as Three in the Attic and Wild in the Streets. But it would mark the beginning of the end for Corman as a movie director. A.I.P.'s Arkoff and Nicholson, after ten years of indulging every youth fad, resisted the extremes of The Wild Angels. Some offensive bits were trimmed from Angels' church orgy, and Corman rebelled when wider editorial license was taken with his later The Trip. Finally, when A.I.P. totally recut his Gas-s-s, Corman broke off relations entirely, soon ceased directing, and formed his own distribution company.
MGM's DVD of The Wild Angels is one of their Midnight Movies throwaway titles, but blind fortune has resulted in a fine disc. Savant has nothing against no-frills packaging (especially at prices lower than bargain-store VHS) and this one is a keeper. The anamorphic 16:9 image is bright, colorful, and almost completely free of damage. The soundtrack is especially vibrant, with the Arrows Theme buzzing loudly and reminding us that as a bikers' anthem, it's become as recognizable as music for James Bond. Mike Curb provided the less exciting rest of the score. His involvement in exploitation pix around this time was later used by his opponents to scotch his California political run (for governor?).
The only extra on the disc is a fun trailer that doesn't know how to sell the film, using old-fashioned graphic titles and lame narration: "If you're a 'mama', you're every man's woman!" Even if expensive docus and commentary tracks are not in the cards for all of these lower-tier Midnight Movies, Savant hopes that MGM might consider relatively-inexpensive Still Galleries, as their files contain a wealth of great material.
Roger Corman was always surrounded by a group of wild Hollywood fringe talents, and one gets the feeling in The Wild Angels that Roger finally let their wilder instincts come to the fore. For all its purported exploitation roots, this is a serious film, powerful enough to make its art-movie existentialist ending, "There's no place to go," work perfectly. Angels is too caustic to be harmless and too intelligent to be ignored. Anyone doubting its sheer nerve needs to see its main title card (and original poster, if Savant recalls correctly). Whereas Nazi imagery is routinely censored out of video art even for War films in today's PC world, The Wild Angels incorporates a swastika in its title logo! Happily, the studio types did not see the need to sanitize it with a replacement.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Wild Angels rates:
1. Nancy Sinatra's faux tough-broad recording-star persona is particularly well used when she dresses 'straight' to spearhead the invasion of the clinic. With a nod to The Battle of Algiers (where Algerians give an African woman a French colonial makeover to pass through a checkpoint) it points up well the 'Angels vs. Everyone' total political alienation.
2. Corman often has 'establishment spokesmen' pronounce
verdicts over his wayward heroes. The preacher's thoughtful attempt here is
beautifully handled, unlike the stiff revivalist in the earlier Corman genre
offering "X". Likewise, the graveyard ending seems an inversion of a scene from a Corman Poe adaptation.