One of the reasons B-movie auteur Larry Cohen’s career is so unique is that he often invested his work with more social significance than was necessary. After all, the easy path when making exploitation flicks is simply to concentrate on girls, gore, and guns—all of which were elements of Cohen’s movies. Yet Cohen regularly delivered something extra, namely satirical commentary about culture, politics, and race. Therefore, even if Cohen’s handling of lightning-rod material is occasionally clumsy or even crude, he deserves lots of credit for endeavoring to imbue his drive-in pictures with meaning. Cohen’s 1972 movie Bone, for instance, fuses comedic and dramatic aspects in an offbeat manner. Originally subtitled A Bad Day in Beverly Hills, the movie begins with a bizarre sequence of a car dealer named Bill (Andrew Duggan) hallucinating about auto wrecks while acting in a cheesy TV ad. This sets the tone for Cohen’s exploration of how fantasy and reality collide when the fairy-tale existence of rich Beverly Hills whites is disrupted by the intrusion of a black criminal scarred by racism.
Specifically, Bill and his unhappy wife, Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten), lounge around the pool one afternoon until Bill discovers a rat stuck in the pool’s drain. Then Bone (Yaphet Kotto), a towering African-American dressed in ragged clothes, appears from nowhere. Mistaking him for an exterminator, Bill asks Bone to remove the rat—which he does, by hand. Turns out the invader was casing the joint for a robbery, so Bill is sent away from the house to collect cash while Bone holds Bernadette hostage under threat of rape and murder. After this intense setup, Cohen takes the story in unexpected directions, presenting not only Bernadette’s Stockholm Syndrome-style fascination with her tormentor but also Bill’s craven attempts at maneuvering the situation for maximum advantage. Cohen’s goal, of course, is to skewer myths: the black man as savage; the suburban white man as heartless opportunist; the unsatisfied white woman as easy prey for a virile African-American; and so on.
None of this quite works, simply because Cohen’s attempts at dark humor result in arch characterizations that are hard to believe, but Bone boldly engages a number of controversial issues. (Cohen even riffs on horny hippies by way of an odd sexual interlude between Bill and an eccentric girl played by Jeannie Berlin, known for her role in the 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid.) And even though Bone eventually loses narrative focus, it hangs together on a performance level. Duggan and Van Patten capably incarnate different shades of self-loathing, and Kotto plays a huge range of qualities—at various times, his character is cunning, funny, philosophical, and sadistic. FYI, Cohen fans should pay close attention to the scenes set in Bill’s mansion, since Cohen used his own palatial Beverly Hills home as a location.