Directed By: Robert Vincent O'Neill
Starring: Donna Wilkes, Cliff Gorman, Dick Shawn
Tag line: "High School Honor Student by Day. Hollywood Hooker by Night."
Trivia: Most of the film was shot at real locations on and around Hollywood Boulevard
Like many, I was saddened by the recent passing of noted film critic Roger Ebert, whose lifelong devotion to movies was an inspiration to us all. On a personal level, I owe quite a bit to Mr. Ebert, who introduced me to several classics I now count among my all-time favorites, including McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Fellini’s 8 1/2. So, I felt it only right to pay homage to the man who had such an influence on my early development as a film fan. 1984’s Angel, an exploitation flick about a teenage prostitute fighting for her life on the mean streets of Hollywood, might seem like a strange choice for such a tribute, but, odd as it may sound, this was the movie that really made me sit up and take notice of Roger Ebert.
Back in the ‘80s, Ebert co-hosted the television program At the Movies with fellow film critic Gene Siskel, during which the two would offer their opinions on the newest theatrical releases. By 1984, the show had already been on the air several seasons, and, being a movie nut, I made it a point to watch it whenever I could. On one particular show, they were reviewing Angel, and Gene Siskel kicked things off by soundly slamming the movie, which he clearly saw as nothing more than a poorly-made exploitation picture. He ended his brief tirade by staring straight into the camera and exclaiming “Angel is trash”. Next up was Ebert, who, to that point, had remained silent. Now given his opportunity to speak, Ebert looked right at Siskel and said “Angel is not trash”. To be honest, I can’t even remember what Ebert’s arguments were in defense of Angel because I was too busy laughing at Gene Siskel’s response. Now, it’s been a few years, and my memory might be a bit sketchy, but I’m fairly certain Siskel was surprised his co-host was defending a film he considered indefensible. Over the years, the two would bicker often, but this particular argument is, hands-down, my favorite Roger Ebert moment.
Anyway, on to Angel:
Directed by Robert Vincent O’Neill (who also co-wrote the screenplay) Angel tells the story of young Molly Stewart (Donna Wilkes), an honor student whose parents abandoned her when she was very young. Forced to fend for herself, Molly makes money the only way she can: working as an underage prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard. Using the pseudonym “Angel”, Molly earns enough to pay both the rent and her tuition (she attends a well-respected private school). Yet when an elusive killer starts knocking off hookers one-by-one, Molly and her friends have no choice but to join forces with police Lt. Andrews (Cliff Gorman) to try and track him down.
I can certainly see why Siskel thought the movie was “trash”; there’s a whole bunch of gratuitous nudity in Angel (in one scene, we follow Molly into the high school locker room, just in time to spot about a half-dozen topless cheerleaders), and plenty of violence as well (wandering into a motel room with one of her Johns, Molly finds the nude, bloody body of her friend, Lana, played by Graem McGavin). The film also jumps around a bit too much between Molly’s days in school and her nights on the street, never really developing either storyline to its full potential. Truth is, we never actually see Molly making any money. Her first night out, she narrowly avoids being arrested by an undercover cop (Gene Ross), hangs out at a diner with fellow prostitute Crystal (Donna McDaniel) and a transvestite named Mae (Dick Shawn), then walks the boulevard with former cowboy star Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun) before finally heading home to bed. Only once in the movie do we see her with a “customer”, and he runs out before anything happens (Nothing like finding a dead body to kill the moment).
But, then, I also see why Ebert defended Angel. The various scenes set along Hollywood Boulevard, which were shot on-location, have a real energy to them, and reminded me of 1982’s Vice Squad, a film that told a similar story of prostitutes in peril (interestingly enough, Vice Squad was written by this movie’s director, Robert Vincent O’Neill). Along with its setting, the film’s killer (John Diehl) is appropriately spooky, a loner who lives in a small, dank apartment, a la Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and when he’s not dicing up hookers is either exercising or staring at a picture of his mother. Yet, even though we spend plenty of time hanging around with him, the killer remains an enigma through much of Angel, which only makes him creepier. The performances also work in the film’s favor. Despite the fact she doesn’t look anywhere near 15 years old (she was actually in her mid-20s when the movie was made), Wilkes is strong as Molly, and the supporting cast, led by the always-reliable Dick Shawn, is equally as effective.
So, who was right? Siskel or Ebert? In the end, I’d say the truth falls somewhere in between: Angel sure isn’t cinematic gold, but as far as trash goes, I’ve seen a lot worse.
RIP, Mr. Ebert… and thanks for everything.