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Friday, May 22, 2015

Angels Die Hard (1970) review


Tom Baker (Blair), William Smith (Tim), Carl Steppling (Sheriff Dan), Frank Leo (Martin), Alan DeWitt (Farragut, the Undertaker), Gary Littlejohn (Piston), Beach Dickerson (Shank), Rita Murray (Naomi), William Bonner (Houston), Mike Angel (Dirty), R.G. Armstrong (Mel Potter), Connie Nelson (Nancy), Les Otis (Tommy), Diane Turley (Patsy), Michael Donovan O'Donnell (Monk), Dan Haggerty (Teddy), Michael Stringer (Seed)

Directed by Richard Compton

The Short Version: Virtually plotless biker shenanigans sees The Angels gang lose one of their members in a town not welcoming of their rowdy presence. Compton's movie fractures things like narrative flow, assuming a quasi-documentary feel in spending more time documenting the biker lifestyle while periodically reminding the audience a story resides somewhere in his script. Compton's ANGELS gets especially chaotic when trying to characterize the gang members and townspeople. Not the best film of its kind, but like a fine wine, these ANGELS age well with repeat viewings. This un-EASY RIDER cycle show is salvaged by several distinguishable attributes that show what Compton was capable of with barely any budget; a highlight of which is its depiction of 70s biker culture versus small town tribalism.

The Angels, an outlaw motorcycle club, stop over in a small town called Whiskey Flats and immediately attract the attention of local law enforcement and the concerned citizenry. One of the bikers, Seed, is mysteriously killed in a motorcycle accident while crossing the county line and the rest of the gang believe the town was in on it. After the funeral, and the Seed is planted, the Angels intend to find who sent one of their own over to the High Side. After saving a kid from a mine cave-in, violence still breaks out between the two factions--the bikers and the law--leading to a violent conclusion and retribution.

New World's first picture was this $125,000 biker movie from Richard Compton, famous for the Southern Gothic classic MACON COUNTY LINE (1974). In the annals of biker cinema, Roger Corman may have helped write the song, but it was guys like William Smith and director Jack Starrett who made it sing. ANGELS DIE HARD is not as glossy as EASY RIDER (1969), nor is it as expositionally sound as RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969), but it does sport (among other things) a free-wheelin' score, nine cues of which are from a band named East-West Pipeline. It's also blessed with arguably the best title of the genre--even if it doesn't quite live up to it.

The blood and thunder of ANGELS DIE HARD is, obviously, William Smith, the genre identifier of this style of picture. He starred in five of them within a three year period--each one different from the last. His eulogy for Seed during the memorable funeral procession is arguably the highlight of Compton's messy, if monetarily successful movie. Smith is second billed next to Tom Baker (not to be confused with the famous British actor) as Blair the biker leader; although considering Smith's dominating presence, you'd never know it. When folks talk biker films, William Smith's name is synonymous with them. Smith revisited his biker persona a few more times throughout his career (HOLLYWOOD MAN, EYE OF THE TIGER), but nothing quite on the level of his five chopper flicks during the genres heyday.

Another bit of business Compton's ANGELS does well will endear itself to fans of vintage small town iconography. It's Americana as you don't see it anymore; the slow, methodical grasp of industrialization having made town fairs, old style gas stations, coke machines, and hanging out at the local diner all but extinct. For all its rough spots, ANGELS DIE HARD pays a good deal of lip service to this outmoded American past time. 

However, small town life of Whiskey Flats is illustrated as not all peaches and cream. The Angels come in and there's no welcome wagon awaiting them. Bikers wear this badge of trouble on them, and upon entering this sleepy little town, trouble is what they get. You're not even ten minutes into the flick and there's already a brawl outside the town pool hall. Granted, the Angels don't do a whole lot to endear themselves to the citizenry. The tribalism of the locals is understandable, but eventually, the script turns it into all-out hatred. The half-hearted treatment of this dichotomy is possibly the films biggest failure. 

Compton's script plays narrative tug-of-war in juggling two storylines at once; well, one is the actual plot and the other is a visual exploration of life in an outlaw motorcycle club. The former pops in and out, never actually taking hold till the last thirty minutes. Partially inflamed by the raucous behavior of the MC (more about that in a bit), a contingent of Whiskey Flats has seething disdain for them. Mel Potter (played by the always reliable R.G. Armstrong), who consistently refers to the gang as 'biker skum' (he spells it with a k!), gathers his own group of rough-housers to get rid of what he deems a plague on the town. Potter and his crew are like their own local MC, only instead of hogs they ride pick-up trucks. Till the last half, Compton seems to have difficulty in clearly defining exactly who we're supposed to root for.

There's one great scene early on where, during the town fair, the sheriff's daughter, Nancy, is noticeably disinterested in her boyfriend (a plot point that crops up later on). Meanwhile, Seed, the biker who was taken into custody after the big brawl the night they arrived, is on his way out of jail, but his bike won't start. He goes in to make a call and Nancy happens over. She walks around the motorcycle in awe of this steel horse. She smiles. The metaphor is obvious. The bike represents the open road, ie freedom; Whiskey Flats, her hometown, signifies constriction. Nancy wants to experience new things and the motorcycle, much like the gang, is the forbidden fruit. It's one of the best scenes that, unfortunately, is never sufficiently explored in a movie that occasionally runs off the celluloid road.

Aside from the younger members of the community experiencing that touch of rebellious youth through their fascination with the gang, these rough riders also seduce the local undertaker, Farragut, an already eccentric character, into their fold. He becomes a temporary tag-along, quickly becoming entranced with the odd practices of the Angels; the epitome being the bizarre funeral procession that culminates in the bikers pissing on the pine box that holds their dead comrade.

The script succeeds in making us like the Angels at times, but at others, it does little to dispel their violent image. We're supposed to be sympathetic towards them, but this is difficult to do when they enter a local bar, ransack the place and rape a man's wife while slinging mounds of spaghetti all over her. We never see the rape, but we are left to assume once the lady's top comes off, the gang members that are encircling, or on top of her don't stop there. Towards the end, the script confounds the audience further by rendering the Angels as compassionate when they help in saving a little boy who is trapped in a mine cave-in. This moment of heroism is short-lived, though.

By the end of the flick, the town (consisting of Potter's posse) is out for blood all over again after the gang is blamed for the supposed death of Nancy. Of course, the girls boyfriend, angered that she shows more interest in Blair (leader of The Angels, and a woefully underdeveloped character), smacks her so hard she falls and hits her head on a rock. Thinking she's dead, he goes back to town to report to the sheriff. It's unclear if he blames the gang for her supposed death, but it wouldn't matter anyways. The townsfolk (who aren't all that cultured, either) arm themselves with torches and guns in what amounts to a modern day witch hunt that ends badly for everybody. Even the audience. 

Compton and crew shoot this finale like it's some sort of party. It feels like money was running out and they had to throw together what they could in a matter of minutes. A shocking coda is sloppily edited to the point it's nearly incomprehensible if you're not paying close attention. Additionally, what little dramatic buildup the filmmakers amass just when they need it most is irritatingly thrown away along with a few other wasted opportunities that could have elevated ANGELS DIE HARD to the top tier of B cinema. The level of tension Compton instills in later efforts like WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (1971) and MACON COUNTY LINE (1974) makes ANGELS DIE HARD look like amateur hour by comparison. Still, this effort was very successful for New World Pictures. Corman's company would follow this up with another hit, their first actual in-house production, THE STUDENT NURSES (1970).

Biker flicks are often accused of excessive misogyny. It's not something that's exclusive to the genre, but it's something that's a part of the culture; only it's not considered as such within those communities. Regardless, the sight of women being treated as property will raise a few eyebrows. For example, when Seed dies, some of the guys desire his 'old lady'. Piston (stuntman and bike king Gary Littlejohn) brushes his woman aside and sets his sights on obtaining the dead biker's "property". This sort of thing crops up a lot in these movies, and it's part of the documentary approach the picture takes before the actual plot kicks into gear.

Upon first viewing, ANGELS DIE HARD might look like a movie that doesn't know where the hell it's going, or what it's trying to say. Some of the visuals speak volumes; such is the case of the cinematography from Arch Archambault (COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE). His camera is strapped to just about every prop throughout the movie. There's some experimentation with different lenses that add spice to scenes including some picture-in-picture shots and low angles that give the impression Compton and his crew were trying to do something creative with what little resources they had at their disposal.

With a lot of stumbles and just as much in its favor, ANGELS DIE HARD will still fail to impress some viewers. Biker movies are an acquired taste, but they're an essential part of the exploitation cinema heritage. This one is a mild diversion for biker movie enthusiasts and fans of William Smith. Without him, this picture would have likely died hard around the first reel change. Humorous touches and a consistent soundtrack add to the atmosphere that will likely only be appreciated by those dedicated to the time period it's set in and motorcycle culture in general.

This review is representative of the Entertainment One DVD. There are no extras. The opening title on this DVD edition is not the one on the original film print.

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