Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bone: Bad Day in Beverly Hills (1972)

Bone is a picture that failed to snag an audience upon it's release. They tried to sell it as blaxsploitation. When that didn't work, they tried to market it to the art house crowds. Again, it failed. Not black enough for the blacks. Not pretentious enough for the artists. Not middle of the road enough for the rest of us. Nice try Larry Cohen (writer-director-producer), but you probably released this thing about ten years too soon.

Now, I'm not saying it's a masterpiece or anything like that, but it's a pretty good picture about a black man who invades the home of an affluent white couple in Beverly Hills. Since this is a home invasion picture made during the 1970s we can pretty much assume what happens, right? Some tea, some sun bathing, maybe some baseball talk, etc. Well, fuck, that can't be right, can it? Nah, it's gotta be some sorta mental, followed closely by phsyical, torture, and then some robbery, maybe some rape, etc. Well, that ain't exactly it either.

The movie starts off with one of those commercials featuring a used car salesman trying to unload one of his death traps. We realize this must be a fantasy of some sort since there are dead people in all the cars, some of which are totaled. The car salesman is not "Crazy Eddie" or whatever, but simply Bill Lennox (played by Andrew Duggan) who implores his viewers to "for Christ's sake take these cars off my hands!" Bill is your typical used car salesman; slimy, deceitful, a lousy husband. He lives in a sizeable house (borderline mansion) and refers to his hired help in unsavory terms ("imbecile Jap gardener" and "even the god damned garbage man has got no pride"). His wife, Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten), is sorta the typical wife for a guy like this. A "yes dear", almost oblivious type. For example, she knows nothing of their shoddy finances and convinces herself, and anyone who will listen, that their son is M.I.A. in Vietnam and not serving a prison sentence somewhere in Spain for transporting Hash. Typical rich person household.

Into their lives comes the guy they figured was sent over by the pool service (there's a rat stuck in the filter) only it turns out he's not even the garbageman or affiliated with any other service type trade. Instead, he's Yaphet Kotto, aka Bone, robberer and serial rapist. Still, he subverts expectations by unplugging the rat from the filter and chucking the thing in the bushes. At first Bone seems pretty friendly. Then he insists on coming up to the house, ransacking their office, looking for the "big bread" and making snide comments about all of the bills he finds; loans, credit cards, mortgages, etc. Fuck man, their wealth is a sham. It's all an illusion. Bill even forged his wife's signature on their third mortgage which is considered a criminal act, putting Bill close to Bone's level (except for the rape). Bill and his wife argue about money, in Bone's presence. Bone sends Bill to the bank to unload what funds he can. If he's not back in an hour he's going to rape and, he threatens, murder his wife. This is where the picture gets interesting.

What we expect to happen isn't even close to what really happens. It's actually fairly accurate to portray this thing as a comedy, albeit an extremely black one. We started watching this with certain expectations. We got a big, black guy, a self professed rapist. Does he behave the way we would assume? Not exactly. Oh sure, he attempts to rape Bernadette after the hour has passed (Long story, but the husband was in line at the bank before reflecting on the argument with his wife and ditching the line and hitting a nearby bar and other various adventures) but realizes he can't. She's not putting up enough of a fight, calling him slurs. Maybe it's the booze he let her have. Anyway, he relents, they talk, begin to understand each other, have a few laughs, look up her husband's life insurance policy, and so on.

Bone is disarmingly honest with her and even comments on her "booze fat" after she mixes another drink. Meanwhile, Bill is out on the town learning his own life lessons. He hooks up with a woman who occupies a shit hole apartment, has food stamps but doesn't use them. She thinks food tastes a lot better if you "steal it". She makes a living writing complaint letters to various corporations and living off the free shit they send her. Not exactly the kinda lifestyle Bill is used to. Then she uses him in her molestation fantasy and things start to get pretty weird.

Shit man, this picture deals with issues like race and class in a fairly unorthodox way. It makes us a bit uncomfortable. Roles are reversed, jokes are made. To say any more about the story would spoil it. I knew nothing going in and was genuinely surprised. Larry Cohen had some balls on him to make this his first picture as director. Actually, he wrote, produced, and directed the thing so the responsibility was all his. He went on to helm a couple of actual blaxploitation movies (Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem), some killer baby pictures (the It's Alive series), a killer dessert picture (The Stuff) and a killer glow in the dark messiah movie (God Told Me To). He's also a pretty proficient screenwriter (Maniac Cop, Phone Booth, Cellular, Body Snatchers, etc). He's a little like John Sayles in that he seems to love injecting social commentary into his creature features. I especially like the sub title for this picture, which evokes the Spencer Tracy classic, Bad Day at Black Rock. I hope that was his idea.

Bone is a good start to his career, not really in a commercial or even critical sense (it bombed and was panned by the few critics that saw it back in the day), but more in a "wow, looking back...this is actually a pretty good movie with elements that seem well ahead of its time" kinda way. There's also a terrific jazz score by Gil Melle who, according to the wikipedia, was a pretty accomplished artist (creating the album covers for such greats as Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis). This picture is probably worth it for the scene at the end where Bernadette calls 911 and, when asked to describe the perpetrator, can only say "well, he was a huge black man". And if you don't find that funny, then you are a racist.


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