Bill is a successful car salesman, famous from his television advertisements. He and his wife Bernadette are an affluent couple living in Beverly Hills. One day, they find a rat in their swimming pool; suddenly a big, black man, Bone, appears in their garden, disposes of the rat and then, despite being completely unarmed, invades their home, demanding money. There is no money in the house – indeed, Bill and Bernadette are deep in debt, living on credit – but Bone discovers that Bill has hidden $5,000 in a secret account. Bone sends Bill to withdraw the money while he holds Bernadette hostage, and threatens to rape and murder her if he is late returning. Bill begins to wonder whether or not this might be a way to get rid of his wife and, while he has run-ins with two kooky women, Bone fails to rape Bernadette. She counsels him about his problems, and makes love to him. Together, they set out to kill Bill for the insurance money.
While Bone’s opening caption announces the political and comic intentions of Larry Cohen’s debut picture (‘The year is 1970. The most powerful nation on earth wages war against one of the poorest countries – which it finds impossible to defeat. And in this great and affluent nation exists its smallest richest city … And it is called Beverly Hills’), it barely hints at what will follow. Scathing of the tawdry emptiness of contemporary American life, and particularly acute in unravelling the white racial imagination, it is as if Chester Himes and Luis Buñuel had teamed up to gene-splice The Desperate Hours (1955) and Week End (1967). Despite successful previews and some good reviews, it was too controversial for any major distributor to handle, and its poor marketing (as Blaxploitation thriller, horror movie, even sexploitation) condemned one of the most inventively-problematic films of the period to ill-deserved obscurity.
Full of Cohen’s trademark quirky characters (including Brett Somers’ widow, whose husband committed suicide by dental x-ray, and Jeannie Berlin as The Girl, a young woman who survives on the fruits of shoplifting, new customer deals and writing complaint letters), it dissects a credit-and-consumption culture that pays no heed to consequences. It opens with Bill presenting a TV spot for his car lot, but it soon becomes clear he is surrounded by wrecked cars and in each of them are torn and bloody corpses (their make-up by an uncredited Rick Baker). The status of this footage remains uncertain but it introduces the film’s dreamlike aspect – although it is unclear whose dream it might be: possibly that of Bill and Bernadette’s son, who is not serving in Vietnam as they claim but languishing in a Spanish prison for smuggling hash; or of Bill, fantasizing that Bone is murdering his wife while he is enjoying a dalliance with The Girl; or of Bernadette, who might have conjured him up so as to get away with murdering her husband.
Regardless of such ambiguous metatextuality, Bone’s sudden appearance associates him with the rat as something that should not be in Beverly Hills, and the film is – like Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – constructed so as to manifest and thus Critique – how white America imagines the black man. In the most troubling and intriguing sequence in the film, Bone attempts to rape Bernadette even though he takes no pleasure in it because ‘I’m just a big black buck doing what’s expected of him’. He cannot go through with it, and so she – having taken a psychology course – gets him to talk about it. He reveals that he can only rape women who fight back – it dawns on her that he must be the ‘unidentified negro’ you are always hearing about – but, of late, even that has not been enough. With the relaxation of rules about representing interracial romance, he has suddenly lost ‘the nigger mystique’. Thus, white culture has robbed the black man of the one thing it ever allowed him to possess.
Studio/Distributor: Larco Productions, New World, Jack H Harris Enterprises
Director: Larry Cohen, Producer: Larry Cohen
Screenwriter: Larry Cohen, Cinematographer: George Folsey Jr
Composer: Gil Melle, Editor: George Folsey Jr
Duration: 95 minutes
Cast: Yaphet Kotto, Andrew Duggan, Joyce Van Patten,
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, Edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA.