Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

Produced by Roger Corman, Burt Topper, James H. Nicholson, and Samuel Z. Arkoff; directed by Daniel Haller; screenplay by Charles Griffith; cinematography by Richard Moore; edited by Kenneth G. Crane and Ronald Sinclair; music by Mike Curb and Dave Allen; with John Cassavetes, Beverly Adams, Mimsy Farmer, Leo Gordon, Marc Cavell, Maurice McEndree, Russ Bender, and Buck Taylor. American International Pictures, 1967. DVD, color, 85 min. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release.

Considering the popularity of biker films of the Sixties and Seventies, all of which have enjoyed second and third lives on home video, it is bewildering that the Roger Corman production Devil’s Angels (1967) fell through the cracks. This MGM Limited Edition disc is the film’s first home video release. The movie’s disappearance is especially bewildering since it stars legendary actor/director John Cassevetes—the film is doubtless one of the many thankless acting jobs Cassavetes undertook to raise funds for his pioneering independent films like Faces (1968) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Devil’s Angels, like virtually all biker films since The Wild One(1953), is based on an incident in Hollister, California in 1947. A group of motorcyclists allegedly upset the town, providing grist for Life magazine, thus incarnating a new version of the Enemy Within for a paranoid Cold War America obsessed with the Other—“juvenile delinquents” were next on the list of perceived internal subversives.

Directed by Daniel Haller, Corman’s longtime set designer, and injected with a representative rumbling, buzz-guitar soundtrack by Mike Curb and Dave Allen, Devil’s Angels might be seen merely as a follow-up to the popular The Wild Angels (1966), Corman’s first foray into the biker genre. The two films have some things in common, like a troubled gang leader who wants to break free from the dead-end angst of biker life, having it both ways with hell-raising antics that confirm for adults their worst fears about motorcycle packs, while giving the kids the vicarious fun of mass destruction and the grooviness of life on the open road. But the film, marginally successful in its ambitions, is a small departure from the biker formula by trying to take apart the myth of bikers as latter-day outlaws in the mold of Billy the Kid and Jesse James, free-spirited individualists of the blacktop who might break the law but are concerned mainly with preserving personal freedom in the face of encroaching technocracy. We get the sense that the film believes in none of this, starting with the opening images of bikers emerging at dawn from the husks of broken airplanes at an abandoned field, like the lumpen types crawling out of barrels in Eisenstein’s Strike.

Cassavetes plays Cody, the brooding leader of a gang called the Skulls, whose days, Cody thinks, are numbered, their ranks diminished by jail and death. Cody’s less-than-trustworthy adjutant, Joel-the-Mole (Maurice McEndree), tells him the story of Butch Cassidy and his legendary Hole in the Wall gang hideout. Cody sees himself as another version of Cassidy, who can find a utopian hideaway for the Skulls, where they can be free of “the man” and “love each other.” As introspective as Cody appears, he doesn’t give a thought that his El Dorado is nonsense, but the film wants us to take this sensitive, if hopelessly naïve (and dumb?) hero seriously.

The gang sets out for their imaginary Eden but, lo and behold, they stumble on a middle-class California town enjoying its summer county fair, complete with Ferris wheel and cotton candy. The Skulls engage in some messy tomfoolery that enrages the chamber of commerce. The tough-but-fair sheriff (Leo Gordon, playing against type as the only sane person in town), intervenes as the angry city fathers demand the young ruffians’ blood. Against his better judgment, the sheriff allows the gang to make camp outside of town, where they are visited by the too-curious prom queen Lynn (Mimsy Farmer, again young American womanhood besieged by the Sixties counterculture). She is roughly handled by the Skulls but not violated, which doesn’t calm the town elders, furious after the Skulls ruined their carnival. Cody is thrown in jail for rape, but the Skulls, together with a Wehrmacht-like regiment of comrade bikers called the Stompers, break Cody out of jail, beat the daylights out of the sheriff and the old codgers, rape Lynn after all (“We’re owed one!”), and engage in “razzle-dazzle,” bringing the Last Judgment on the town (for some reason, one emblem of holocaust in these films is a biker running down the street with a vacuum cleaner, an apparent violation of domestic space). A disgusted, disillusioned Cody leaves the gang after the gang leaves him—the final image is a prolonged reverse tracking shot of Cody riding toward us on his bike as the credits roll, Cassavetes’s handsome, haggard features slowly filling the screen.

A distinguishing feature of the film is its singular lack of fascination with bikers, who are portrayed as brutes, clowns, and morons, best typified in a character dressed in a fur jacket and Nazi helmet called Robot, because he walks like one, and talks like Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies. The Skulls bust up a convenience store, shoving cupcakes in each other’s faces while sloshing beer on the cornflakes. The scene seems less about justifying parental moralizing or giving the kids some kicks than simply saying that these guys are cruds, along with their enamored fans. We wonder if the scornful expression on the face of Cody actually represents Cassavetes’s resentment and impatience at having to put up with all this to raise some capital to finish Faces. In withholding sympathy for the bikers, the film is at least more sophisticated than, say, the Rolling Stones, who were so entranced with the myth of outlaw bikers they hired the Hell’s Angels to provide security at their disastrous Altamont concert (documented in the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter), or the many journalists and jet-set types who felt these guys represented something unique about Sixties culture.

Although the total destruction of the jerkwater bourgeois town is more satisfying and less compromised than the denouement of other biker films, the only real charm of Devil’s Angels is Cassavetes’s presence. He was an extraordinary actor, always taking his work seriously, bringing dignity even to marginal films like Devil’s Angels. He can playfully cajole an underling with a sinister humor, then suddenly flash a terrible anger, his dark eyes murderous in close-up. Cassavetes undercuts his charisma by affecting a Snoopy-style aviator cap, with goggles and long white scarf—a near-disastrous decision, but one that gives us a sense of Cassavetes’s contempt for B-level genre fare. Watching him is a pleasure, although it precipitates meditation on the grievousness of his loss.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.

To purchase Devil’s Angels, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine