As news spread this past weekend that Larry Cohen had died at the age of seventy-seven, few captured countless cinephiles’ appreciation for the prolific screenwriter and fiercely independent director as well as Edgar Wright. “For so many fun high concept genre romps with ideas bigger than the budgets, for so many truly inspiring cult movies, I thank you Larry,” tweeted the Baby Driver director.
Right up to the end, even as he was still pitching screenplays and series ideas, Cohen was reveling in such accolades, dancing in the aisles as the credits rolled on The Ambulance (1990) during a 2017 mini-retrospective at New York’s Quad Cinema and, just last summer, chatting to the press about his guerrilla style of filmmaking as Steve Mitchell’s documentary King Cohen rolled out online. “At his best,” wrote Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times in 2003, “he creates projects that center on stripping away skin, nerve endings and, ultimately, pretense.” Cohen “mined a career out of one simple question—what's the worst that could happen?—which he answers with the stinging, compelling heat of the exploitation thriller.”
Mitchell was writing as Phone Booth, written by Cohen, directed by Joel Schumacher, and starring Colin Farrell, had just hit theaters. It pins a publicist loosely based on Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in a phone booth by a sniper who threatens to take him out if he hangs up. The original idea dates back to Cohen’s days as a television writer. At one point in the 1960s, Cohen was simultaneously working on three shows he’d created, Branded, a western; Coronet Blue, an espionage mystery; and the science fiction series The Invaders. He was also writing episodes of such hits as The Defenders and The Fugitive—and floating movie ideas.
Phone Booth caught the eye of none other than Alfred Hitchcock. That project was never realized, but Cohen’s memories of brainstorming with the Master of Suspense were still vivid when he spoke to Patrick McGilligan in Film International in 2011. “Suddenly this big man would get up and start moving with the grace of a ballet dancer,” Cohen recalled. “He was lost in himself, telling his story.” Cohen also noted that Hitchcock “talked with his hands. I remember he had this very strong handshake, and these big thumbs—good hands for a strangler. If those hands wrapped around your throat, boy!” Cohen, who tried his hand at standup comedy as a teen, always gave entertaining interviews, but if you only have time for one, make it this conversation conducted by McGilligan, author of widely admired biographies of Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and George Cukor.
“How did you talk someone into letting you direct?” McGilligan asks, and the story turns out to involve a convoluted deal that allowed Cohen to make Bone, his 1972 directorial debut starring Yaphet Kotto as a thief in for an unexpected welcome when he tries to rob a wealthy couple in Beverly Hills. Renowned critic Robin Wood called Bone “one of the most remarkable debuts in American cinema.” Wood devoted a good swath of his 1986 book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan to Cohen, and as Glenn Kenny noted in the NYT last year, while Wood granted that there was a “sketchiness and sense of haste” in Cohen’s direction, his films had, as Kenny paraphrased it, “a genuinely subversive conceptual audacity.”
Cohen, a big fan of Warner Bros. gangster movies as a kid, then turned to the 1931 Edward G. Robinson vehicle Little Caesar for inspiration. Since Sammy Davis Jr. turned down the lead, Black Caesar (1973) stars Fred Williamson as a mobster battling both a rival gang and a dirty cop. It’s “as much a monster movie as any of Cohen's subsequent horror tabloids,” writes Fernando F. Croce, and it features a score by James Brown, who liked the movie so much he wrote a “spec score” for a follow-up, Hell Up in Harlem. Cohen’s producers, American International Pictures, clashed with Brown, so the Godfather of Soul pulled the score and released it as The Payback, Brown’s only studio album to be certified gold. Cohen, in the meantime, simply started shooting Harlem without a script. “I just made it up as I went along,” he told Kieran Fisher in Diabolique in 2017. “I knew I would get a movie out of it and that it would be fine, it’s just that everybody else thought I was crazy. I am crazy.”