The black black comedy
Harried married couple Bill and Bernadette are lounging by their Beverly Hills pool when they are confronted by a gregarious, menacing black man. Immediately asking for money, he forces them into their mansion and ransacks the place. Finding nothing but $30 and a savings account passbook, he demands that Bill go to the bank and withdraw the money. If he's not back within an hour, the intruder will rape and kill his wife. Bill immediately heads into town, leaving Bernadette home alone with the intruder, whom she calls "Bone." The two begin a frantic game of sexual cat and mouse.
In the meantime, Bill decides against cashing in the account and heads out to wander the streets, letting time tick by. He meets a strange old woman at a bar. He runs into a hippie girl and helps with her daily shoplifting routine. They then spend some equally intimate time together. Bone and Bernadette unite to find Bill and collect the money. But tracking him down may be the hardest part of this plan. When all three finally converge, buried emotions and hidden agendas are revealed. Bill may be the breadwinner, but Bernadette is destined to have the final say. All thanks to Bone.
Bone is an anomaly in genre-meister Larry Cohen's long career behind the camera. Part black comedy social satire, part overblown pompous civil rhetoric, it speaks of its era and making (the late '60s, early '70s) better than 99% of the movies made in said timeframe. In its characters are housed the philosophical dynamics of the American community circa Vietnam: Bill is The Establishment, the oblivious leader of a dying regime that can't see the protest for the pleas; Bernadette is his long suffering wife, a spirit of liberation and approaching feminism locked in a Phyllis Schlafly attitude of home and hearth; Brett Sommers as the barroom X-Ray Lady is the true old guard, the Great War's lost generation of elderly citizens who in just a few more short years will be forgotten, forced to eat cat food to survive; Jeannie Berlin as the Wild Child is flower power and personal freedom run amok, a hippie whose free love ideals have taken a dark, sinister twist. And then there's Bone. A big black man looking to commit a crime of convenience for the financial windfall he feels he deserves, he surely represents racism and minority disenfranchisement. But he also spins that conceit around to show how poverty and lack of power can lead to a hopeless state of mind, even when one might not be necessary. Add a long lost son (either to the Asian conflict, or drugstake your pick) and the borderline cliché of used car salesmanship (which was still fresh 34 years ago) and you've managed to boil down the human condition of the post-'60s hangover quite well. Bone has something to say about the way we lived back then. And it says it brilliantly.
It's easy to envision Bone as a play, one of those startling works of the new theater that spreads it message of nonconformity and change within the conventional context of a traditional three-act boundary. Cohen is known as an exceptional writer, and Bone is a prime example. This is fundamentally a film about words, and Cohen provides his stellar actors with some very interesting and special ones. Very little cinematic magic is present. Cohen, as a director, employs several stock styles (fisheye lens, rapid intercutting, underwater scenes) to add zest and flair to this war of speeches. Smart enough to employ a cast of marvelous performers, Bone's company of character actors and breakout stars shines brighter than one would expect from such a strange, mostly unknown film. The movie truly belongs to Yaphet Kotto and Joyce Van Patten, who spend the majority of their scenes together battling the racial and sexual hierarchies that have always existed between black and white America. Their moments together crackle with an intensity and chemistry with which other parts of the movie play catch-up just for a chance to compete equally. Oscar nominee (for The Heartbreak Kid) Jeannie Berlin (daughter of famous funny lady Elaine May) has her mother's distinctive voice and comic timing. But she too is allowed to trade on that sarcastic streak to introduce something scary and damaged to her hippie-in-transition character. All that's left for Andrew Duggan to do is inhabit the oppressed white male, the paternalistic center of our sick society, his face a beet-red heart attack in waiting, chasing skirts and dreams that will always (or should always) elude him.
Bone will therefore come as a shock for those expecting a derivative exploitation look at race relations. Indeed, the movie starts off like a low-rent Desperate Hours, your typical home invasion for monetary gain scenario. But within twenty minutes, that entire genre of film is discarded and a new, more unsettling story starts to unfold. Bone becomes a movie about a marriage in free fall, a husband hiding inside a fraud, a woman in need of deliverance, a flower child seeking revenge, and a black man looking for freedom and acceptance. It's funny and it's frightening, simultaneously sad and shocking. Certainly some of the ideas and ideologies are dated and stink of the thinking of social simpletons. But there is more inherent truth and accurate theorizing in this no-budget production than most overblown Hollywood movies.
Perhaps Cohen sees the early '70s better than most. Maybe he sensed that Watergate and the dismal self-denial end of the Vietnam War were just around the corner, two concepts that changed the nation irrevocably. He seems to predict the blind faith fatalism of early feminist dogma, and underscores the "can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy to race relations that will paint internal policy for the next quarter-century. Indeed, Bone is more profound and controversial than other films from the era, since it proposes questions without giving the clear-cut usual answers, and addresses stigmas without suggesting ways to avoid them. Indeed, it becomes an audience litmus test, a chance for people to personally gauge their own reactions to the issues in the world around them. Viewed in 2003, Bone is a startling revelation. In another dozen years or so, it may be seen as a misbegotten masterpiece.
Let it be said now and remembered forever that when it comes to the preservation and packaging of obscure fringe titles, no one does a better job than Blue Underground. Call them the Criterion of Crap or the Something Weird of Subgenres, but they are unique in the way they approach these forgotten films and their presentation. For example, Bone was made on the cheap over three decades ago, and yet the transfer is pristine. Offered in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the movie is bright, clear, and filled with exacting detail. Independent movies made in 2003 wish they looked as good as this (or had the Big Blue U working on their image). Honestly, you couldn't ask for a better print of this film. As for the sound, the Dolby Digital Mono is clean and distortion-free.
And just like almost all other Blue Underground titles, this DVD contains a wealth of vital, exciting bonus material. We begin with an interesting interview with Jack H. Harris, who discusses the problems with distributing the film. Apparently no audienceblack, white, young, oldliked the movie. Then we are treated to the trailers, which highlight the different ways the picture was sold. Next is a radio spot that merely mimics the more "exploitation" version of the trailer. Then we get a poster and stills gallery that tells a tale of modified titles and twisted ad campaigns. But the final two extras are the best. First we learn of the abandoned initial footage for the film. Cohen had hired actress Pippa Scott to play Bernadette, but after a few days, he grew unhappy with her work and fired her. He then switched film stocks and hired Joyce Van Patten. These outtakes with Scott show how off base her performance and scenes with Kotto really were. It's a fascinating insight into how one actor (or in this case, actress) can misdirect an entire project.
But the best added feature is a full-length commentary track by the quasi-legend himself, Larry Cohen. While not very scene specific and occasionally rambling, it is still a great introduction to Cohen the writer, filmmaker, and Hollywood personality. Cohen has had quite the career in Tinseltown, from early accomplishments in television to the recent success of his screenplay for Phone Booth. Cohen has worked with many luminaries in the industry and he name-drops like crazy. Most fascinating is the story of Jeannie Berlin and her career post-Bone. Apparently, her work in this film landed her the part in The Heartbreak Kid and a subsequent Academy Award nomination. But when asked by Newsweek what she thought of her first starring role, she snubbed the question and Cohen. The anecdote degenerates into another tale of actor flame-out, but it highlights the fascinating behind-the-scenes issues that went on in this film. Blue Underground's Bill Lustig is along for the track, and he occasionally adds a quip or two. But for the most part, this is wall-to-wall Cohen: admiring his work; marveling at the actors and their performances; hoping the DVD will introduce this, perhaps his "favorite" film, to audiences anew.
And it should. It's odd to look back at this B-movie auteur's credits (The Stuff, Q, It's Alive) and realize that at the start of his career, there was a striving social consciousness and insightful screenwriter buried beneath the blood and beasts. The fact that he is better known for his horror and thriller titles is just too bad. Just like when it was released, however, it's hard to see Bone finding a deserving audience. It will either be dismissed as high-minded or embraced as forward-thinking. But it really should be seen. Bone is a lost artifact of a chaotic time in the USA. Thankfully, Cohen has captured it for all time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Larry Cohen
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