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Larry Cohen’s ‘Bone’ Remains a Biting and Daring Social Satire

The world wasn’t ready for the charged-up black comedy in 1972, but the film’s power is everlasting.
By  · Published on August 15th, 2020

Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week our pick is Larry Cohen’s racially-charged dark comedy, Bone.

“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”

Larry Cohen was an auteur in the truest sense of the word. While he made a good living selling scripts to other filmmakers, his most memorable movies were the ones in which he had full creative autonomy. The films that let him tell his stories on his terms. This often meant shooting without permits and breaking the law, but the results of his daring filmmaking exploits are special.

Bone (1972), his debut directorial feature, is quite low key compared to his later efforts. Cohen’s films were known for maximizing their locations — particularly the streets of New York City — but Bone is a self-contained home invasion film that combines modest aesthetics with big ideas. However, it’s arguably the most biting movie in his socially conscious filmography, and its themes are still relevant in 2020.

What’s it about?

A thief (played by Yaphet Kotto) breaks into the home of a wealthy Beverly Hills couple, Bill (Andrew Duggan) and Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten), and threatens to rape the wife. As the situation unfolds, though, the robber discovers that the couple isn’t as wealthy as they appear to be.

It also doesn’t take long until the wife develops the hots for Bone. This leads to the thief and unhappy spouse concocting a murderous scheme to get Bill’s insurance money. Has Bone maybe gotten into more trouble than he bargained for? Of course he has.

What makes it sublime?

With this movie, Cohen had a bone to pick with early 70s America. The film skewers racial divides and superficial lifestyles in a way that’s poignant and hilarious. When we meet Bone, we’re led to believe that he’s going to be the villain of the piece. By the time the end credits roll, it’s firmly established that he’s the real victim in the whole situation. He chose the worst white people to rob that day, and it wasn’t worth the headache.

Cohen once described Bone as a satire of white fantasies and prejudices. The eponymous character essentially represents how Black people were perceived by some white folks at the time. Basically, he’s a savage criminal and sex object for a dissatisfied middle-aged woman. In one scene, after he and Bernadette fornicate, she tells him that he was “how she imagined [he’d] be.” Not once in the movie does Kotto’s character identify as Bone either. That’s the name he’s given by White society.

While Bone is a home invasion/hostage movie, it’s also a soap opera on steroids. For example, instead of withdrawing money from the bank to stop his wife from being murdered by a criminal, Bill takes a sexual detour with a younger woman he meets on his travels. He realizes that his marriage is loveless, and he doesn’t really care what happens to his wife when the younger woman enters the fray. But that’s what happens when you marry people for wealth and social status.

Bone, meanwhile, is just a victim of poor circumstances. He doesn’t have any real intentions of harming anyone, and that makes him easy to sympathize with and root for. This is by design, however. The film leans into the stereotypes at first by playing into racial fears. Then it flips the script to present Bone as the most authentic and humane character in the entire story. While this is a very funny movie, its heartbeat is fueled by Cohen’s hatred of racism and other societal ills.

Some of these scene descriptions make Bone sound raunchy, but it isn’t. The producers did try to sell it as a sex film called Housewife at one point, and it mostly played to crowds in dilapidated grindhouse theaters during its original run. However, Bone is an intimate, character-driven outing that probes some nuanced ideas and boasts impressive production values.

One of Cohen’s greatest strengths was convincing the best veterans of the game to work with him. His movies were always filled with top-tier character actors who weren’t A-list stars anymore. At the same time, he also brought in some great talent to work behind the camera. Bone was shot by George Folsey, a cinematographer who was nominated for 13 Academy Awards. He chose to work on Bone because he was tired of playing golf and Cohen was friends with his son.

Cohen’s style of filmmaking was always very loose and improvisational, which is why they’re often referred to as exploitation films. However, Folsey’s contributions give Bone a polished sheen and it passes for a mainstream movie from a stylistic level. It’s the outrageous content within the frames that make it unlike anything else, though.

And in conclusion…

Bone’s commentary on racial divides is upsettingly evergreen. But it addresses the serious issues with the anger and wit that made Cohen one of the best filmmakers of his generation. He’s an unsung great outside of genre circles. This movie is a prime example of the countless overlooked gems that he unleashed on a world that maybe wasn’t ready for them at the time.

I especially recommend watching this one if you’re a fan of Get Out (2017). Jordan Peele’s film explores similar thematic ideas in regard to white people viewing their Black counterparts as ideas instead of as people. I don’t know if Cohen influenced Peele, but their respective outlooks are similar.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.