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Hells Angels on Wheels

Hells Angels on Wheels
Castle Hill/Image
1967 /Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Street Date December 30, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Adam Roarke, Jack Nicholson, Sabrina Scharf, Jana Taylor, Jack Starrett, Bruno VeSota
Cinematography Leslie (Laszlo) Kovacs
Art Direction Jeremy Kay
Film Editor William Martin
Original Music Stu Phillips
Written by R. Wright Campbell
Produced by Joe Solomon
Directed by Richard Rush

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Roger Corman's 1966 The Wild Angels opened up the floodgates for biker films, a teen exploitation subgenre that flourished for at least 6 more years. One of the earliest imitators was this Joe Solomon production rushed out in 1967 with full cooperation from Sonny Barger's Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels.

Hells Angels on Wheels features Jack Nicholson in one of the first roles of his 'second life' as an actor, the one that led to breakthrough stardom in Easy Rider - itself a biker film, technically. Nominal star Adam Roarke went nowhere fast, and neither did director Richard Rush, although he later became a cult favorite with The Stunt Man.


Poet (Jack Nicholson) quits his demeaning job as a gas pump attendant and falls in with the Hells Angels motorcycle club when they cruise through looking for trouble. Led by the mercurial Buddy (Adam Roarke), the gang beats up a group of rivals and takes revenge on some sailors when they pummel Poet at a carnival. Poet hangs around because he's attracted by Buddy's main squeeze Shill (Sabrina Scharf). But she's a hellion as eager to cause trouble as any of the gang. Shill's dare for Poet to make love to her in front of her lesbian admirer confuses him, but is only a small part of her refusal to take anything seriously. One of the sailors Buddy beat up has died, so after a body-painting party the gang heads out of town to get two of their number married - hijacking a rural pastor (Bruno VeSota) for the ceremony. But the cops catch up with them out of town - and Poet and Buddy's nudging rivalry becomes a problem.

Biker films quickly deteriorated into pretty ragged productions, and Hells Angels on Wheels has the unflattering distinction of looking like sloppy seconds after Corman's slick and stylish Peter Fonda movie. Shot flat and cheap in and around Los Angeles, it shows signs of extreme production difficulties, possibly involving a lack of cooperation from the Hells Angels. Notorious Angels founder Sonny Barger makes a personal appearance in the film, giving it an official stamp of approval. There's some good dialogue in the script by R. Wright Campbell (the brother of Corman pal William Campbell) but the shooting looks erratic at best. The finished film plays as if production was halted early - the action comes to an abrupt end at an unlikely spot. Several scenes smack of hastily-improvised padding, and the attention to detail drops reel by reel.

Hells Angels on Wheels starts well, has a reasonable middle section, and then sort of self-destructs. Following the Corman movie's formula, the gang gets into trouble in the city and then splits for a wild wedding scene (instead of a funeral) out in the stix. Jack Nicholson makes a fairly credible initiate into the club, almost convincing us that the Angels' violent, beer-soaked adventures might be fun. They intimidate people, scare girls, break up bars and use every opportunity to get into brawls.

Where Nicholson soon parts company with Adam Roarke's pack leader on basic biker philosophy. He doesn't dig the idea that the girls go with anybody Roarke tells them to, and becomes immediately possessive with Sabrina Scharf's 'hot mama' Shill. Scharf is one of the few credible biker gals depicted in the genre. Nancy Sinatra was a little ridiculous in Corman's film, and later main squeezes morphed into Earth Mother, commune hippie types when the formula went dry and bikers started being the defenders of helpless flower people.

With admirable subtlety, Scharf and director Rush show Shill being coveted by both Nicholson and a girlfriend, and the movie actually gets edgy for a minute or so when Shill behaves like a real lowlife, egging Nicholson to get it on with her in front of the girl.

Otherwise, the movie's almost benign. The angels strut and bluff but fight like Hollywood stuntmen. Nobody uses foul language, and the sex stays limited to some makeout scenes. The big party scene has some very tame painting of girls in their underwear, while other 'wild revelers' pour beer on each other ... nothing that Cecil B. DeMille wouldn't do in a chaste orgy in 1932.

But the overall nihilism and disdain for authority were pretty shocking. The cop characters are abused verbally, yet never react to the constant provocations, no matter how poorly they're treated. One particular patrolman has it in for Adam Roarke personally, and we get the biker equivalent of an 'I'm Spartacus!' scene at one point.

This is one of the formative films for cameraman Laszlo Kovacs, an immigrant who worked on anything and anything in Hollywood, cheap, to learn his craft. Starting on nudies, he shot such errata as Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!, and Mantis in Lace while establishing himself in AIP pictures. Here he's billed as Leslie Kovacs and his shooting has a rough-and-ready look that changes style as needed. More often than not it's hand-held and not particularly well-lit, but some scenes manage a style. Some of producer Solomon's lousy sets couldn't be lit well by anybody.

Richard Rush's action is mostly energetic and he stages some good early scenes on urban streets where local cops hadn't yet realized how troublesome and disruptive film crews can be. Later on, the filming moves to what appear to be private rural roads (a distinct lack of signage), as if some padding and connective material had to be cribbed together quick and cheap. One un-filmed rescue of an arrested biker is crudely covered by a couple of confusing longshots and some vague voiceover.

It really looks as if the production ran out of money, or time, or Hells Angel cooperation. They're not a group one would expect to respect a production schedule. The story appears to be at a last-act climax, with the two leads fighting and Shill finally becoming emotionally involved. With some violent action barely resolved, the image suddenly freezes and turns into a 'the end' card: end of show. It's pretty ragged.

Later directors John 'Bud' Cardos and Jack Starrett play a nasty rasty biker and lead lawman respectively; cult actor Bruno VeSota is the uncooperative preacher enlisted for a formal Hells Angels wedding.

Image's DVD of Hells Angels on Wheels is a great transfer of a prime element in very good shape. The enhanced image composes the film well - I've previously only seen grimy full-frame edited Television prints. The transfer is clear and has good color; the sound is sharp and highlights the film's lack of a good biker anthem like The Arrows Theme or Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild. All in all, this is a solid biker exploitation value.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hells Angels on Wheels rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 22, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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