The Cohen Case Files: Bone (1972)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen

Bone holds several distinctions in Larry Cohen’s filmography.  It’s his first feature film as a director.  It’s a straight social satire, eschewing many of the genre trappings on which Cohen often likes to hang his social commentaries.  It’s also one of his few films where the female lead is the most interesting and fully formed character.  Maybe it’s because I have such a familiarity with Cohen’s normal formula that the variations on display in Bone explain why the film feels so unusual and daring.  But I doubt that’s the case.  I have the feeling that even newcomers to Cohen’s world would find the film’s handling of racial and class issues to be surprising, occasionally offensive, and completely fearless.

Bill (Andrew Duggan) and Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten) are a seemingly wealthy couple living in Beverly Hills.  Bill owns a car dealership and is something of a local celebrity from starring in the commercials for his business.  Hovering around fifty, he’s at least a decade older than Bernadette.  On the surface, Bernadette relishes playing the role of the trophy wife.  Lounging by the pool at their impressive home, she smirks knowingly at Bill’s frustration and anger at the shoddy work of their pool cleaner.  Always grumpy and frustrated at what he sees as a world that fails to live up to his high standards, Bill never actually follows through on his complaints.  When he angrily calls the pool service to complain, he immediately becomes a polite pushover.  Bernadette’s smirk is enough to tell the audience this is a routine with Bill and to also make it clear all is not well with their marriage.

It’s during the situation with the pool service that Bone (Yaphet Kotto) walks into the unhappy couple’s life.  Who is he?  Where did he come from?  What does he want?  These are the questions that normal people would immediately ask a stranger who wanders, uninvited, into their back yard.  But Bill and Bernadette immediately try to adhere to a societal political correctness.  Instead of asking any of the questions that I put forth, they respond to Bone in a confused manner that at first finds them clumsily polite to the stranger, even mistaking him as being from the pool service.  When it becomes apparent Bone is not from the pool service, the couple remains nervously polite, this time out of fear.  The reason for this fear is initially unspoken, but it’s abundantly clear to Bone—and the audience—that Bill and Bernadette are practically pissing themselves because a large, African-American man has waltzed into their pampered, predominantly white, corner of the universe.  Where the film becomes fascinating to me—and could potentially rub people the wrong way—is that Bone counts on the fear his presence strikes in the hearts of rich white people.

It turns out that Bone has decided to rob Bill and Bernadette because they have the biggest house on the street.  As a bonus for his troubles, he reveals he might even rape Bernadette.  But what Bone doesn’t count on is the capacity for some people to live in complete denial.  Instead of finding money or jewels in the house, Bone finds nothing but bills.  It turns out the couple have been living well beyond their means for quite a long time and the collectors are nearly to the point of beating down their door.  When Bone finds a savings account book that reveals Bill is holding an account solely in his name that contains five thousand dollars, he forms a plan to have Bill go to the bank and withdraw the money while he stays at the house with Bernadette.  If Bill isn’t back within an hour or goes to the police, Bone promises to do terrible things to Bernadette.

Of course, the reason the account is only under Bill’s name is obvious.  As Bone says with a laugh upon discovering the book, “You’re stealing from your wife!”  This complication calls into suspicion just how eager Bill will be to close the account and makes Bernadette a wildcard as she looks to an alliance with Bone as a possible solution to getting some money out of Bill before ending their marriage.

Bone works best in its first and third acts.  The setup of the characters and the situation they inhabit in the first act is beautifully played for uncomfortable laughs.  A sequence where Bone forces Bill and Bernadette into the house is the most striking, playful, and perverse of these comedic moments: as Bone goes through the rooms of the opulent home, Bernadette describes the architecture and art work on display in a chipper voiceover.  The voiceover is supposed to be from a previous tour for a group of friends, but there is a desperate undertone to her voice, as though she were a guide concerned with impressing a bored tour group in a museum.  Bone certainly reacts in a bored manner (aside from one perfectly placed double-take that produces maximum laughter) until he has had enough of Bill and Bernadette’s debts and babbling.

The second act sags a bit as the leads are split up by the plot.  While Bone and Bernadette have an intriguing side story where they bond in the most unexpected of ways, Bill is left to drift.  A subplot where he briefly wanders from a bank to a grocery store to a dingy apartment with an unnamed young woman (Jeannie Berlin) is absurd, occasionally funny, but ultimately pointless (even if it does point out the obvious mental problems that plague the classic manic pixie dream girl).  While Duggan does do some fine work expressing Bill’s mounting desperation and anger, most of his scenes in this section of the film feel like nothing more than filler to pad out the film’s running time.

The weak nature of Bill’s side trip is made all the more clear as he transitions from his time wandering about to rejoin the main plot with Bone and Bernadette.  The clashing needs of the three leads and the desperate measures they take while heading to a dark climax and powerful resolution, brings the ugly and cynical subtext of the film briefly to the surface.  For a brief moment, while one of the leads (No spoilers in this review) watches the actions of another character in disgust, Cohen fully shows just how sickened he is by the irresponsibility and greed on display.

It’s Cohen’s willingness to scold Bill and Bernadette for racially profiling Bone when they first meet him, while also presenting him as a remorseless criminal that keeps the film walking a tightrope between social satire and tasteless pandering to racial fears.  For the most part, Cohen makes that walk look easy.  His only missteps tend to come when trying to make too blunt of a point.  A piece of Bone’s dialogue (“I’m just a big, black buck doing what’s expected of him!”) is so tone-deaf and obvious, not even an actor as skilled as Kotto is able to salvage it.

The actors deserve much of the credit for pulling together the myriad traits that Cohen hides within their characters.  Much like the script slowly peels away layers to show each character for the frauds they are, Kotto, Van Patten, and Duggan never tip their hands too early when it comes to showing the vanity, cruelty, and ultimately pathetic levels to which they are willing to sink.  Kotto makes great use of his imposing physical presence and quick laugh to keep Bone an unpredictable force.  Duggan brings a smarmy, television pitchman’s patter to Bill that breaks down into a sad, mean aggression in believable fashion.  But it’s Van Patten who does the best work with the most interesting character.

Initially looking and acting like nothing more than a stereotypical trophy wife, Van Patten allows Bernadette to betray a sneaky intelligence as she moves from acting as Bill’s ally to teaming up with Bone in the second act.  While this description may make Bernadette sound like nothing more than an opportunist, she has very personal reasons for turning on Bill that go beyond financial.  Regretting a serious, life-changing decision she allowed Bill to make for the both of them, it’s not hard to argue with her as she seizes the chance to punish Bill for an incredibly mean and selfish act he committed in the past.  Van Patten plays these changes as more than an intellectual exercise, turning them into something akin to a sexual awakening.  It’s no accident that Bernadette becomes more attractive to Bone as the wheels for revenge start turning in her head.  Intelligence is just as sexy as any physical attribute and Van Patten takes advantage of this fact.  It’s an impressive performance that brings to life one of the best female characters Cohen ever created.

While it may lack the pulpy plotting that makes so many of Cohen’s films fun to watch, Bone emerges as essential viewing.  It’s daring and entertaining while speaking to race and class issues that are still very relevant forty years after its release.  It’s also a kick to watch Cohen develop his loose, improvisational style of filmmaking.  As a directorial debut of one of America’s most important independent filmmakers of the twentieth century, it comes very close to brilliance.

Note:  The trailer refers to the film as Housewife, one of the titles the film played under when released.  It also completely misses the tone of the film by shamelessly preying on racial fears.

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