The Cohen Case Files: See China and Die (1981)

Written, produced, and directed by Larry Cohen

Like a lot of Larry Cohen’s films, it’s tempting to simply look at See China and Die as a time capsule of the era it was produced. While the themes of his best films are timeless, many of Cohen’s productions are also rooted in the mundane everyday routines of the characters to make the oft-ridiculous plots seem more plausible. The downside of this approach is that some of the peripheral elements of the films can be distracting to modern audiences. The fashions, political and social issues, and pop culture touchstones date the films in such a way that it sometimes takes two or three viewings to catch all the subtleties of Cohen’s best works. See China and Die takes this problem of being instantly dated to a new level through its (now) mostly extinct form as a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week.

Momma Sykes (Esther Rolle) is a cook and housekeeper for several wealthy and important New Yorkers. Smarter than most of her employers giver her credit for, Momma is addicted to murder mysteries and is introduced riding the bus, complaining to a fellow passenger about how she is able to deduce the identity of the killers in Agatha Christie’s thrillers well before the ending. Not long after this setup, Momma stumbles into a real-life murder mystery.

Finding one of her employer’s dead in his bed, a knife in his chest, Momma calls the police and then starts sleuthing the crime herself, much to the chagrin of her son Alvin (Kene Holliday), who just happens to be the NYPD detective on the case. As Alvin tries to piece together the victim’s last few days alive (which were spent in China, hence the unwieldy title), Momma conducts her investigation by going on the theory that the killer had to reside in the same luxury high rise as the victim.

In all honesty, the central whodunit mystery is not that intriguing. What is interesting and keeps the film entertaining—and occasionally provocative—is the way Momma goes about solving the crime.

The film is surprisingly frank in its depiction of the relationship between the wealthy—all white—residents of the building and their mostly African-American housekeepers. Momma tries to subtly question the residents of the building that are her suspects, but they catch on quickly and—in a running joke in the film—promptly fire her only to look on in rage and disbelief as she’s then hired by one of their neighbors, because “good help is hard to find.” Cohen has fun with this inverting of the power dynamic at the same time that he tiptoes up to the line of pointing out just how racially charged the situation could become at any moment. This is especially true of Momma’s encounters with Edwin Forbes (Cohen regular Andrew Duggan), the former NYPD chief of police who is one of her suspects. Not only does he try to shake Momma off the case, he subtly threatens to use his still considerable power to destroy Alvin’s career. I will not spoil whether Forbes is the killer or just a red herring, but the danger he poses to Momma and Alvin is real in a way that has nothing to do with frothy movie-of-the-week murder mysteries.

The other suspects are a mostly bland collection of wealthy, but dysfunctional types who quickly blend together. The sole exception to this rule is a singer named Ames Prescott (Paul Dooley). Seemingly swooping in out of a completely different film, Prescott is an urban cowboy-type singer in the mold of Mickey Gilley. That Dooley is playing this character seems like terrible casting until he is revealed to be a lifelong entertainer who has been everything from a juggler to a magician to make a buck. Spoofing the idea of the country singer who is actually a native New Yorker is kind of a cheap joke, but, veteran character actor that he is, Dooley sells the hell out of the idea and provides some much needed flavor to the large pool of potential killers.

Going into the film, I expected it not to feel very much like a Cohen production. After all, the TV-movie-of-the-weeks of that time had a very set look and style. I expected several establishing shots, very little camera movement, and lots of contrived cliffhangers to keep viewers from changing the channel during the commercials. While the cliffhangers are present, the rest of the film retains the loose feel of a Larry Cohen film with plenty of handheld camerawork, at least three scenes that look and feel improvised, and a violent fight on the street that was shot on the fly (judging by the realistically astonished reactions of the “extras”) without any discernible blocking.

While the film falls flat in the third act as it settles into an overt spoof of the type of mystery novels that Momma reads, the humor and edgy (for the time) portrayal of racial and class dynamics makes it enjoyable for most of its running time.

The film was intended to continue as a series, but despite Rolle’s lingering popularity from the recently ended Good Times, the character of Momma began and ended with See China and Die. Interestingly, Murder, She Wrote began its epic run just three years after See China and Die aired. While the central characters had little in common, the plots of both had many similarities from the murder of the week setup to a largely inept law enforcement official to the amateur sleuth who solves the case. Murder, She Wrote even inverts the central conceit of an elderly woman who knows how to solve a crime by reading murder mysteries and turns that character into an elderly woman who writes murder mysteries.

Despite the TV-friendly procedural elements at play in the film, it’s not hard to see why Cohen and Rolle were unable to spin Momma into her own series. While Momma is written and portrayed as a sweet woman that almost everyone underestimates, the world she occupies is fairly dark (for 1981 network television). The film is relatively blunt in its depiction of race and class divisions. Momma and Alvin hint at a former home life in which her husband/his father was physically abusive. A murder committed to eliminate a potential witness is presented like a tamer version of a stalk-and-kill sequence from a slasher film. A mysterious bad guy is made memorable to Momma through his painful-looking hair plugs (a gag Cohen recycled in his screenplay for Best Seller) in an out-of-nowhere bit of weirdness. All these things combined to make See China and Die a more memorable than usual TV-movie, but also pushed it into the kind of idiosyncratic territory that frightens network executives.

But even if Momma could have been spun off into her own TV show, the character and the world Cohen created for her would probably have been watered down to the point where all the flavor was lost. See China and Die is hardly perfect, but it is entertaining and feels like a Cohen film. If you can track it down, it’s worth watching.

James Dixon Sighting: As yet another in his long line of police officers who are handy with exposition.

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