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John Landis was shooting Trading Places in upper Manhattan one day when he noticed that all the cops working on set had left. When they returned hours later, he asked where they’d gone and was told that some nut had been on top of the Chrysler Building, shooting machine guns. Today, that would be a major terrorist incident. In 1982, it just meant Larry Cohen was making another movie.
Introducing an indie auteur whose fans are fervent if comparatively few, Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen is a low-rent but colorful tribute to the septuagenarian writer-director who horrified audiences with the monster-baby It’s Alive franchise. Making a pretty strong case for his idiosyncratic vision and tenacity, it’s likely to have moviegoers rushing to figure out where they can see obscurities like God Told Me To and Q, the dragon-in-Manhattan flick that occasioned the aforementioned skyscraper incident.
A native New Yorker who used to carry strangers’ groceries to earn enough change to go to the movies, Cohen started out to become a performer — like “Sid Caesar or someone,” he recalls. But he got a job as a page at NBC, and TV’s first golden age welcomed him: He was 17 when he sold his first story to TV, and he cut his teeth in the age of live television, when keeping writers handy was a must. He started selling ideas for series that others would make their own (The Big Lebowski gave a fictionalized shout-out to his old Western Branded), and then graduated to film scripts.
Deciding to direct his own material for a change, he made the very provocative Yaphet Kotto vehicle Bone (using his own house as a set) and then a second racially charged film, Black Caesar. (King Cohen talks as if the latter started blaxploitation, conveniently forgetting that little movies like Shaft and Super Fly came earlier.) Kotto beams, “Larry Cohen was like the white Martin Luther King for movies!” But Fred Williamson, Caesar‘s star, is more down-to-earth in his praise, noting Cohen’s nerve and talent when stealing footage. He’d shoot anywhere without a permit, it seems — even LAX, when it came time to film Black Caesar‘s sequel.
The story of that LAX shoot — where a fight scene at baggage claim traveled all the way up the conveyor belt into the airport’s innards, allegedly with no advance notice — is tough to believe, as are several others here. Sometimes, we get the feeling that Mitchell doesn’t want to hear too much of a story, lest it fall apart under scrutiny.
But however they were made, the films Cohen directed had personality. Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and others testify to his strangely distinctive creativity, and personal stories — notably about working with legends like Bernard Herrmann, Sam Fuller and Bette Davis — paint Cohen as a loyal, fan-first filmmaker.
Mitchell (making his feature-doc debut) appears to be working chronologically through a hectic career, tracking Cohen as he pulls back from directing and starts penning high-concept scripts like the one for Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth. Then, toward the end, comes an avalanche of references to other pitches he sold through the years, backing up Cohen’s claims of being an idea machine, pumping out so many stories he hardly worries if producers and directors muck one up. There’s always another on its way.
Production company: La-La Land Entertainment
Distributor: Dark Star Pictures
Director-Screenwriter: Steve Mitchell
Producers: Daniel McKeon, Steve Mitchell, Matt Verboys
Executive producers: John Dadlez, Cardon Ellis, M.V. Gerhard
Director of photography: David C.P. Chan
Editor: Kai Thomasian
Composer: Joe Kraemer