Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 4, 2018

King Cohen

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Despite having written 1,500 online film reviews since 1991, I still had no idea who Larry Cohen was–the subject of a documentary titled “King Cohen: the Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen” that opened at the Cinema Village in NY yesterday. I’d only say that the film would be appreciated most by cinephiles like me. That might include most of my readers since roughly half of what is posted here celebrates the work of obscure filmmakers like Cohen.

Although I have never seen a single film by the 77-year old Cohen, I was familiar with the TV shows based on his teleplays. He broke into television at a very early age, writing for the Kraft Television Theater in 1958, when he was only 17. Back then, there were weekly live teleplays on all the networks that were nothing like the crap shown today. Writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling and blacklisted CPers using fronts turned out scripts on a regular basis that represented dramatic writing at its best.

Cohen also wrote scripts for “The Fugitive” and “Columbo”, two of my favorite shows growing up.

But his heart was in movies first and foremost. He came of age in the 1950s when NYC had movie theaters that no longer exist today. These were palaces with balconies, plush seats and ushers who would lead you to a seat with a flashlight. Most of them were on 42nd Street and offered double features. Cohen routinely went to two double features a week, which amounted to a hundred or so movies a year.

Cohen broke into the movie business as a screenwriter but soon discovered that the production companies demanded changes to his scripts that pushed the envelope of what was considered in commercially viable good taste. That led him to form his own production company so he enjoy the freedom of indie filmmakers such as John Cassavetes but without any pretensions that he was the next John Cassavetes or Orson Welles. Cohen was dedicated to making b-movies of the sort that were so popular in the late 40s and 50s, coming from studios such as RKO. Film connoisseurs appreciate how some of those RKO b-movies became regarded as artistic breakthroughs such as those that combined the talents of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur: “Cat People”, “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Body Snatcher”.

In many ways, Cohen represents the continuation of the RKO aesthetic. Among the directors interviewed in “King Cohen” who pay tribute to Cohen are Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese and J.J. Abrams. We also hear from actors and actresses who have worked with him over the years and describe working with him as a pleasure and an adventure.

Limited often to a shoestring budget, Cohen’s films that are usually based in NY are shot guerrilla-style. For example, in the 1976 “God Told Me To”, the opening scene consists of a sniper on top of water tower killing people at random on the streets below. So his actors, who are deployed on the sidewalks, fall to the ground one by one as startled New Yorkers gape at the victims with the fake blood soaking through their clothing. Instead of hiring actors and directing them to look freaked out, he gets real people to serve as proxies for the extras needed to play New Yorkers strolling by.

The film is based on the idea that a stream of characters decide to kill complete strangers because “god told them to”. One of them is a cop who while marching along with fellow officers in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade draws his gun and opens fire on them. The St. Patrick’s Day parade was real as were the cops, always recruited by Cohen for such scenes. The assassin, however, was not. It was none other than Andy Kaufman in a cameo role. He wears a shit-eating grin before he starts shooting.

The film stars Tony Lo Bianco as a cop heading up an investigation into why people with no criminal past go on such killing sprees, each confessing that god told them to do it. Lo Bianco starred in “Honeymoon Killers”, another great b-movie, made in 1970. As the investigation proceeds, Lo Bianco comes to the realization that the killings have a biblical precedence in the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

It turns out that every one of the killers has been put into motion by God after the fashion of the Manchurian Candidate. One man, who confesses to Lo Bianco that he never was religious before he killed his wife and children, now feels like a holy man.

Would Hollywood have funded such a blasphemous film? Probably not. Cohen started out pushing the envelope in a film titled “It’s Alive” that features a vicious mutant infant functioning like the monster doll in “Chucky” that sadistically kills anybody who gets in his way. Determined to make “It’s Alive” a credible work, Cohen persuaded Bernard Hermann to write the film score. In the course of working with Cohen, Hermann developed paternal feelings to Cohen who worshipped Hermann in kind.

As a cinephile himself, Cohen was always on the lookout for veteran actors and directors that he could cast in his films. He lined up acclaimed b-movie director Sam Fuller to play a Nazi hunter in “A Return to Salem’s Lot” and Broderick Crawford to play J. Edgar Hoover in “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover”. Made in 1977, the film evidently incorporates a revisionist take on FDR that departs from the hagiography surrounding the New Deal architect who has become a saint to Michael Moore, Bernie Sanders, et al. In addition, Robert Kennedy gets taken down as Bright Lights Film Journal points out:

His Hoover is no rogue or loose cannon or unscrupulous “godfather.” Rather the opposite: this Hoover rules with judgment and probity in his “crime fighting” and domestic contra operations. He is the Pope of cops. As a centrist organizer of bureaucratic rule, he opposes the episodic and subjectively motivated spying and dirty tricks perpetrated by presidents. He opposes Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of West Coast citizens of Japanese descent; the film portrays this obscenity as the reactionary land grab it was, with FDR and Earl Warren gloating over the spoils. In a later scene, he chastises Senator Joseph McCarthy as an unprincipled opportunist for his irresponsible red-baiting. Hoover fears these tactics will eventually discredit a witch hunt originally organized by Roosevelt and continued by Truman as they prepared their wars of imperial plunder and sought to eradicate any antiwar sentiment in the labor movement.

Confronted by Nixon’s demands for increased domestic spying, Hoover stonewalls. The film suggests this leads Nixon to set up his own illegal black-bag outfit, the “plumbers.” At the end of the movie, it is suggested Tolson’s release of Hoover’s “private files” to the press led to Nixon’s resignation.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover also focuses on the Justice Department turf war between Hoover and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Actor Michael Parks plays RFK as a hunched, arrogantly smiling juvenile who can ultimately do nothing against Hoover. Historically, it would be hard to imagine two government officials with more in common politically. They both cut their teeth trying to wreck the U.S. labor movement. Hoover zeroed-in on destroying its communist vanguard, while Kennedy succeeded in branding it a criminal mob enterprise permanently corrupted and ready for government receivership. (The witch hunt against communist militants, combined with Kennedy “anti-mob” crusade, saddled our unions with the leadership of finks like Teamster President Jackie Presser.)

“God Told Me To” is on Youtube with ads scattered throughout, just as if you were watching it on FX or AMC. So is “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” but without any ads. I haven’t conducted a thorough inventory but I suspect that many of Cohen’s other films are there as well. At 77 years old, he seems more interested in attracting new fans than making money. People like me, in other words.

4 Comments »

  1. I discovered Larry Cohen during the 1970s at second run movie theaters that offered bargain matinees for $2.00. The first Cohen picture I saw was BLACK CAESAR, a Blaxplotation movie along the lines of LITTLE CAESAR. As a shoeshine boy the protagonist is assaulted by a crooked cop who breaks his leg and leaves him with a limp. Years later and now a big time crime boss in Harlem he encounters the same crooked cop who he takes captive, forces to cover his face with black shoeshine polish and get on his knees and sing “Mamee” before beating the cop to death with his old shoeshine box. At the time, this scene was completely outrageous but powerfully expressive.

    Cohen’s THE PRIVATE FILES OF J.EDGAR HOOVER has a score by Miklos Rosza in the classical Hollywood style that gives it the flavor of Warner Bros. biopic, though a very perverse and politically critical one. I prefer the Cohen version to Clint Eastwood’s J.EDGAR.

    Comment by Richard Modiano — August 4, 2018 @ 6:07 pm

  2. In 1974 our 13 year old world’s were rocked by “It’s Alive” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P031DFgu29g

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 4, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

  3. I believe you meant John, not Ben Cassavetes.
    Probably thinking of Ben Gazara, one of Cassavetes
    stable.

    Comment by Rick Sprout — August 4, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

  4. Thanks, Rick. I did notice that just before your comment appeared. Getting old, I guess.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 4, 2018 @ 8:21 pm


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