NOTE: Read Cinema Gotham's interview with director Larry Cohen.
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Filmmaker Larry Cohen is largely known for movies that ride the edge of (or revel in) schlock, movies like Q: The Winged Serpent and Black Caesar. His films are daring and original, full of strange characters and dialog but also powerful thematic content and terrific performances. His first film, 1972's Bone, may be the finest work in his impressive career. Like Melvin Van Peebles' criminally under-appreciated Watermelon Man, Bone exploits and explores deep racial, sexual and social divisions felt during the dusk when the hopefulness of the civil rights 60's turned into the Vietnam-fueled nightmare of the 70's. Bone at its most basic is an examination of racism and racial paranoia wrapped in the skin of an exploitation shocker but under the surface it's a lot more than that.
After a provocative fantasy sequence where car dealer Bill (Andrew Duggan) acts out a commercial in a junk yard filled with automotive and human refuse, Cohen flings the viewer straight into conflict: Bill and his wife Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten) have a rowdy fight by the pool of their fancy estate. After discovering a rat in the pool's filtration system Bill calls the pool service company. Before he can get any help, however, a large black man appears on their property. We later find out the man's name: Bone. As played by Yaphet Kotto in one of his earlier films, Bone is a memorable character. He pulls the rat out of the system and hurls it into the distance. His take charge attitude is something the couple finds useful at first but once he turns the tables on them all hell breaks loose.
Bone, behaving strangely and unpredictably, takes the couple hostage. He demands money but quickly he too finds that not everything is as it seems. First he discovers that the couple, who appear rather wealthy, are actually drowning in debt and have virtually nothing he can steal. Then, while rifling through the family's paperwork, he finds that Bill hasn't been totally honest with Bernadette about their finances. Suddenly he's not the focus of the problem anymore, as his hostages start to fight with each other. At one point Bone says to Bill "I was thinking about raping your wife but you got trouble enough." In different hands a line like that (and there are plenty more) could have been offensive. Instead, it's indicative of the strange, brave kind of movie we have here.
As the film progresses it spins off in additional stunningly weird directions. Nothing detracts from the characters (it's never surreal) but it's grounded in a kind of reality that comes directly out of the human psychosis. Each character has a truckload of issues and the film offers them a way to work them out in messy, spectacular style. Cohen's mission here seems to have been to uncover the seaminess of the Vietnam era, with every face a facade hiding more lies. Bill mentions that their son is serving in Vietnam but near-subliminal cutaways reveal that he may actually be a POW, something the couple seems intent on repressing (and even more layers of lies are revealed later.) Bone laments the civil rights movement and all the advances in race relations because in his criminal line of work he had use for what he jaw-droppingly refers to as "the nigger mystique." This revelation, like much of the film, is sick, twisted, and on some level, a reflection of a confused time. The brand of white guilt mixed with Stockholm Syndrome (years before the Patty Hearst kidnapping) that Bernadette displays shows that there's something to Bone's distress. He's learned how to project himself to his victims for maximum effect and now the world's changed and he needs a new routine.
In an era where actors are congratulated for playing roles that transcend their race it's shocking to see a film where the leads never let you forget theirs. Kotto plays off of every racial stereotype ever tossed down. From the moment he first appears on screen, contrasted with his lilly-white costars, Cohen and Kotto emphasize skin color. It's a tactic that gives the film texture and punch but also that might make audiences in the post-PC era uncomfortable. But Kotto's loose, dangerous style here challenges the viewer. He's a nightmare but you can't take your eyes off him. It's the energy and talent of the actor that accomplishes this.
And Duggan and Van Patten take risks as well. Their characters are deeply flawed and utterly self-deluded. Neither has a grip on reality as the film starts and instead of learning the err of their ways, they only become more deeply dug into the mess of their lives. The only weak performance in the film is delivered by Jeannie Berlin as a quirky shoplifter, although even she has a strange off-kilter charm that fits the tone of the film.
With the constantly shifting focus of the film's rage and its never absent sense of humor, Bone takes difficult subject matter and, instead of handling it with kid gloves, takes the opposite tactic: Diving right in. A risky endeavor, and not one that will appeal to all audiences, but a brutal, harsh, ambiguous, look at an era and at human behavior that's guaranteed to spark intense debate. Cohen's razor sharp writing and directing, spectacular performances, and superb cinematography and editing from George Folsey Jr. all combine to make Bone a memorably weird and powerful experience.
The anamorphic widescreen video on this Blue Underground release is very impressive. The print shows shows its age in a bit of damage and grain but overall it's vibrant, colorful and sharp. For an older, somewhat obscure film it's heartening to see a print and transfer handled with such care and respect.
The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is less stunning than the picture. Somewhat muddy, the dialog is a bit tough to decipher at times. Still, it's acceptable.
There is a very nice selection of extras on this disc. First off, the commentary from director Larry Cohen and Blue Underground principle William Lustig is another of their friendly, chatty, entertaining entries. They talk about the process of making the film and the times that surrounded it. As always, Cohen has high praise for his collaborators and, as always, they are praiseworthy.
Another interesting viewpoint expressed on the disc is that of legendary distributor Jack H. Harris, who appears in a seven minute interview. He talks about the difficulty of selling the film to audiences at the time. It's a fascinating interview from a guy whose take on the film (and film in general) isn't one you normally get to hear about.
A huge addition to the disc is a half-hour sequence of black and white scenes culled from an aborted first attempt at making the film. With a different actress in the role of Bernadette and a much grainier 16mm look, the film would have turned out completely different. A terrific extra feature.
A selection of radio ads and posters for the film is also included. Like Harris says, the film was a tough sell and the strange marketing campaigns reflect that. A Cohen bio is also included.
An amazingly bold film that jumps right into a lot of touchy subject matter, Bone is excellent viewing for audiences seeking tough, original filmmaking with social and satirical bite. Making mincemeat of numerous taboos, Cohen and his squad of excellent actors crafted a film that really deserves to be remembered.