Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #72 (Biker film edition)

The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ demonstrated real prescience on May 11th when they showcased an evening of “biker” films, in keeping with the recent Waco skirmish between motorcycle gangs that occurred over the weekend.  Admittedly, I’m not all that familiar with the genre that really got into high gear (pardon the pun) with the release of The Wild Angels in 1966, a programmer that was so successful it pretty much had a knife fight with the existing “Beach Party” motion pictures that were in vogue at the time, and sent Frankie Avalon and Annette Funnicello back from whence they came.  I’ve seen The Wild One (1953) and Easy Rider (1969), but my motorcycle movie education stops with Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) in the “Beach” movies I referenced in the preceding sentence.

Tee Cee Em originally had Wild Angels on the schedule before calling an audible (boo) and substituting it with another well-regarded biker pic, The Born Losers (1967).  I DVR’d it and three other cycle sagas and watched them over the weekend, leaving as much space between Doris Martin and myself as possible (though also in my defense, I did participate in a couple of blogathons).

The Born Losers (1967) – You’re probably familiar with auteur Tom McLaughlin’s motion picture Billy Jack (1971), a low-budget opus that did tremendous b.o. in ticket sales upon its release, and made the actor’s titular hero—a half-breed ex-Green Beret who practices peace and nonviolence by beating up anyone who dares come into conflict with him—a pop culture icon.  I had seen Billy Jack many, many moons back (though I have not been brave enough to sit through the follow-ups The Trial of Billy Jack [1974] and Billy Jack Goes to Washington [1977]) but was curious to check out the first film to feature the character, as I had heard it was one of the better biker movies.  (Born Losers was a phenomenal hit for American International Pictures, purportedly the studio’s biggest moneymaker until The Amityville Horror ambled along in 1979.)

It’s really not that bad a film; yes, it’s your basic biker plot that has a sickle gang terrorizing a small town, assaulting and raping several of the young lovelies—the gang effectively terrorizes the female survivors into not testifying until Billy, disgusted with the milquetoast sheriff (Stuart Lancaster) and ineffectual district attorney (Paul Bruce), opens up a forty gallon can of whup-ass and brings the riding reprobates to justice.  But there’s also an interesting underlying element of the evils of prejudice in the town’s interactions with Mr. Jack; at the beginning of the movie, when he steps in to help a man being beaten to a pulp by the gang, Billy receives a stiffer sentence than those responsible for the assault.  During the climactic scene where he brings the cyclists to heel, he’s shot in the back by the cops for his trouble.

Most motorcycle gang films are a little difficult to stomach at times because of their misogynist mistreatment of women, but I liked Born Losers’ theme of meting out justice, with McLaughlin a symbol of the individual offering a voice for the voiceless.  There’s also some nuance in the portrayal of the Born Losers’ leader, Danny (Jeremy Slate), who despite being a douchebag does look out for his little brother (Gordon Hoban) when he’s being knocked around by their father and has a loving relationship with his “old lady” (they’re even raising a son).  This sort of thing isn’t as emphasized in Losers as much as it is in Billy Jack (which really overdoes the preachiness), however; there’s still a lot of violence and exploitation.  The dialogue in Losers is also quite clunky at times; the script was written by Elizabeth James (as E. James Lloyd), who plays Vicky, the young girl helped by Billy.

Actor-stuntman Bob Tessier, whom I recognized from many Burt Reynolds movies (The Longest Yard, Hooper), plays a biker named “Cueball” in this one (which I thought amusing, since he still has his hair in this) and the son of William “Wild Bill” Wellman—William, Jr.—is also on hand as “Child.”  The “Special Guest Star” status is awarded to Jane Russell (apparently the Playtex checks hadn’t yet arrived), who portrays the mother of one of the girls (Janice Miller) called upon to testify.  When Jane goes out for the evening (it’s implied she’s one of the finest gals to ever work the streets), her daughter performs a striptease for one of her stuffed animals.  (I swear I am not making this up.)

The Glory Stompers (1967) – Star Dennis Hopper (as Chino the biker) got some valuable directorial experience on this low-budget feature two years before he would helm the mega-successful Easy Rider.  It was mostly his doing, though; his insistence on multiple retakes and micromanagement of what had originally been planned as a two-week shoot (budgeted at $100,000) gave first-time director Anthony M. Lanza a nervous breakdown, which necessitated Hopper’s stepping in and finishing the picture.  (They must not have been too angry with Hopper—this little grindhouse classic reaped a $3.5 million payday.)

Jody “Deadhead” McCrea rides with the titular biker gang, but he’s having problems with his girlfriend Chris (Chris Noel), who declares with a perfectly straight face: “I just want something better than being a Stompers girl.”  (Hey—don’t we all!)  McCrea (as Darryl) had a run-in with Hopper and his Black Souls gang earlier (Dennis was trying to put the moves on Chris), so he shouldn’t have been too surprised when they dry-gulch him and leave him in the woods for dead.  Because the gang can’t leave a witness (Chris), they wind up taking her with them as they make their way to Mexico…where they plan to sell the girl to some “high class Mexican friends.”

For a brief moment, I thought Jody might luck out and die in order to spare himself the indignity of having to appear any longer in this film…but he turns out to be merely unconscious (how can you tell?) and he goes after Hopper and his cretins with the tenacity of Ethan Edwards.  To be honest, I wondered why they called this movie “The Glory Stompers” because technically there’s only one Stomper involved in the plot…though perhaps they’re including ex-Stomper Jock “Tarzan” Mahoney, who as an aged biker named “Smiley” teams up with McCrea to find his girl.

Bob Tessier is in this one as well (as biker “Magoo”), but the real reason to sit down with Stompers is the appearance of these two jamokes:

The guy on the right is Casey Kasem (as “Mouth”), a few years before keeping his feet on the ground and reaching for the stars, and the dude on the left is Lindsay Crosby (“Monk”), one of Bing’s sons.  You could also get up a good drinking game by downing a shot every time Hopper says “man” but I would not recommend it unless you have some sort of bionic liver.

Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) – Universally-loathed TCM host Ben Mankiewicz observed in his introductory remarks to this one that it was conceived as AIP’s follow-up to The Wild Angels…which would be difficult to do, since Wheels was a U.S. Films release (the same company who brought us The Beach Girls and the Monster).  I’ll defend Mank’s easy mistake; Wheels was written by R. Wright Campbell (who scripted several AIP films, including Teenage Caveman and The Young Racers) and also features the director-and-actor team of Richard Rush and Jack Nicholson (as well as Adam Roarke), who would work together a year later in one of my AIP “guilty pleasures,” Psych-Out (1968).

Nicholson’s the best thing in this movie (as he was in Easy Rider); he plays “Poet,” a gas station attendant who’s let go from his lofty position and winds up with a chapter of the Hells Angels, headed up by the autocratic Buddy (Roarke).  Buddy’s loyalty to his new pal even stretches as far as the murder of a sailor who beat Poet up at an amusement park (the Angels are also responsible for the demise of a motorist who’s run off the highway by one of their number), but he’s not too cool with Poet’s macking on his “old lady” Shill (Sabrina Scharf).  (Sadly, Shill does not have the necessary self-esteem to rid herself of douchebag Buddy, though it might be because she is great with his child.)

Wheels ends violently and abruptly, and while it was not nearly as good as I hoped it would be it didn’t hurt Nicholson at all—he got some of the best notices of his career as the disillusioned Poet.  Jack also became good friends with real-life Hells Angels Sonny Barger (whose fellow cyclists were convinced Nicholson was the real deal, just a member from an out-of-town chapter), who appears in the movie and served as a technical advisor.  (I wonder if the two men kept exchanging Christmas cards once that little unpleasantness at Altamont transpired.)

Devil’s Angels (1967) – This is the movie Mankiewicz should have identified as The Wild Angels’ follow-up: Roger Corman didn’t direct this one (he allowed Daniel Haller to sit in the chair) but he did serve as a producer, with Corman crony Charles Griffith concocting a script laced with deadpan humor.  John Cassavetes—yes, that John Cassavetes—plays Cody, leader of the Skulls biker gang—an organization that has seen its ranks dwindle in number.  After rescuing one of their compadres from a small town jail (he’s there on a graffiti charge), Cody and his Skulls make their way to the tiny burg of Brookville, where a local carnival is on in full force.  The scruffy bikers do not mingle well with the locals, and Sheriff Leo Gordon bans the cyclists to a section of the town’s beach, with orders that they vacate in the morning.  The problem is, a girl named Marianne (Mimsy Farmer) is fed up with the stifling conformity that is Brookville (can’t say that I blame her) and she falls in with some of the Skulls members…who later treat her in a manner that suggests they’re feeling a bit rapey.  The mayor (Paul Myer) and one of the town fathers (Russ Bender) soon spread the word that the gang has taken liberties with Marianne’s virtue, and that’s when all heck breaks loose—including the recruitment of a solidarity gang to help the Skulls do to Brookville what they call “razzle dazzle.”

Devil’s was my favorite of the movie quartet I watched, mostly because the plot is warmed-over Wild One…but it’s John Cassavetes who sold this picture, playing a character not unlike Nicholson’s in Hells Angels on Wheels (there’s a Western theme that’s prevalent in Devil’s, with Cassavetes’ moniker—“Cody”—and his anxious search for a mythical “Hole-in-the-Wall” of Butch Cassidy fame).  You just know that John agreed to take the money and run with this one so he could finish post-production on Faces (1968) (he didn’t appear in a 1965 episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea because he was a Richard Basehart fan), but he has a lot of fun with the part, keeping his tongue firmly-in-cheek.  Gordon and Farmer (the ingénue in Hot Rods to Hell) are also pluses, and Beverly Adams—a.k.a. Mrs. Vidal Sassoon—plays Cassavetes’ main squeeze.  (Future Gunsmoke regular Buck Taylor also appears as a biker named “Gage.”)


hobbyfan said...

Holy facial hair, Batman!

Had to say that. I think that might've been one of the few times Casey Kasem sported a beard on camera. Otherwise, he was always clean shaven. I'll have to keep an eye out for Glory Stompers next time it airs on TCM.

Toby O'B said...

I don't know... with a lot of the screencaps from these movies, I expected to see silhouettes of a guy and two robots watching them at the bottom.......

faustina said...

Oh, cool! I love biker movies and those are some good ones for me to look up. Thanks for reminding me - and the world! - of their existence!