Monday, July 15 would have been the 83rd birthday of writer/producer/director/raconteur/all-around legend Larry Cohen. The world lost this greatest of all American independent filmmakers earlier this year, but he left behind a rich catalog of films and TV shows stretching back to the ’50s and the golden age of live television. I decided to celebrate his birthday this week by doing my personal rundown of the fifty greatest characters from his films. The only rule I gave myself was that the character had to be from a movie he wrote and directed—no cheating and including characters from films he only wrote (hence the lack of characters from the MANIAC COP series or BEST SELLER). I will be listing ten characters a day with the top ten wrapping it up on Friday. Obviously, this is a very subjective list, so sound off in the comments if you think I got it wrong or let me know on Twitter by clicking the link in my bio at the bottom of this page. Let’s honor Larry Cohen’s life and legacy by watching and talking about his movies. I think he would have gotten a kick out of the attention.
Character: Chris Neville
Movie: SPECIAL EFFECTS
I’ve always wondered if Cohen based oily, intense, murderous movie director Chris Neville on a specific filmmaker. As far as I know, he never tipped that hand in any interview, so maybe he was just birthed full on from his imagination. Or maybe he was an amalgamation of different awful people that Cohen and Eric Bogosian (so good in this role) encountered in their show business travels. Whatever the case, he goes down as Cohen’s most detestable, sleazy, yet fragile and human villain. In a movie full of horrible people—from the police on the case to the antihero who stands in Neville’s way—Neville is the worst of the bunch. But he is also the most fun to watch and I nearly find myself rooting for him in spite of myself.
Character: Lieutenant Spencer
Movie: THE AMBULANCE
Few actors are more fun to watch having fun than James Earl Jones. As the paranoid, easily agitated Spencer, Jones fills the screen, bellowing angrily at anyone who crosses him or laughing with a sinister glint in his eye at those he holds in contempt. Chomping his gum in barely repressed anxiety and fury, Spencer gets dragged against his will into the far-fetched conspiracy at the center of the film and Jones has a blast swiping scenes from Eric Roberts and sharing crackling comic chemistry with Megan Gallagher. He leaves the film far too early, but in a movie full of memorable characters (he is the fifth character from THE AMBULANCE to make this list) he makes by far the biggest impact.
Character: Elizabeth Mullin
Movie: GOD TOLD ME TO
The greatest one scene character in any of Cohen’s films (and maybe in any film—seriously) Elizabeth Mullin’s five minutes of screen time are breathtaking in how they combine exposition with subtle character work and the crushing realization of how the central existential crisis afflicting protagonist Peter Nicholas is a tragedy that spans generations. Poor Elizabeth Mullin (Sylvia Sidney, who deserved awards for this performance) sits in a nursing home, trapped by the suppressed memory of her violation nearly forty years earlier and there is no escape for her—not even when she recognizes the truth staring her in the face.
Character: Lenore Davis
Movie: IT’S ALIVE
I’ve always said that Cohen never seemed to write parts for women that were as rich as those he wrote for men. With the notable exception of BONE (see below), the leading men were given meatier parts in his films than the leading women. That said, while IT’S ALIVE clearly rests on the shoulders of Frank Davis (John P. Ryan), Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) goes through an arc that is nearly as strong as that of her husband. Accepting and loving her monstrous child after what is possibly the most traumatic birthing scene put to film, her husband, doctors, and nurses believe her to be crazy. But Lenore is not crazy, she simply is doing what she has to do to protect her child. If she has to look insane to do that, so be it. As she tries to save her child’s life and pull her husband back from the brink to keep her family together, Lenore shows more strength in her resolve than Frank’s performative masculine actions. She is the true hero and the conscience of the film.
Character: Anonymous (Bone)
One of the main misconceptions of BONE is that Yaphet Kotto’s character is actually named “Bone.” He never identifies himself by that name. In fact, he never mentions any name for himself. He is referred to as “Bone” by Bernadette while she drifts in some sort of hypnotic, post-coital state. As I’ve written before, I see Kotto’s character as a figure conjured into reality by Bernadette to take angry revenge on her shitty husband Bill. What is pointed about this idea is that Bernadette conjures him as a large black man who is an unrepentant rapist, thief, and possible murderer. Cohen uses Bernadette’s view of the anonymous man as a way to comment on the inherent racism in the way many polite, wealthy white people see people of color. The anonymous character becomes truly fascinating when he starts to become aware that Bernadette is changing his personality and emotions to fit her needs. As he goes from threatening to vulnerable/in need of Bernadette’s saving to finally realizing that he does not even exist when Bernadette no longer needs him, Kotto plays his character to the hilt, making great use of his Cheshire Cat grin and imposing presence before showing the abject rejection he feels at not being needed. A stunner of a character and performance—and not even the best one in the movie.
Character: Dr. Van Meer
Movie: A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT
Before Dr. Van Meer (Sam Fuller) shows up in the movie, A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT is stuck in something of a rut. While Michael Moriarty keeps the film moving along in a reasonably entertaining enough tone, it is hard to know what point Cohen is trying to make as he takes something of an ambiguous stance on the town full of vampires. But when Dr. Van Meer—a man dedicated to tracking down Nazi war criminals and executing them (“I’m not a Nazi hunter, I’m a Nazi killer!”) wanders into town and learns its vampiric secret, it doesn’t take him long to set the few humans around straight and get to the business of staking some undead bloodsuckers. Given the best acting role of his career, the great Sam Fuller takes it and runs with it. Chomping on his cigar, waving a gun around at the slightest provocation, and grabbing mouthy kids by the backs of their necks and slamming them into chairs, Fuller as Van Meer feels less like a performance and more like Cohen simply told the veteran filmmaker the premise of the movie and released him on set to sort shit out. And sort it out he does while chewing every bit of the scenery, much of the script, and possibly even a few of Moriarty’s toupees.
Because her husband Bill is such a miserable bastard and she is being held captive by a would-be rapist for the first half of the movie, it is easy to feel sorry for and root for Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten). Even if she seems like a bit of a mean-spirited brat in the first scene, you would have to be some kind of a monster to not feel bad for her. But then she turns so casually from apparent victim to a manipulator and finally a full-blown murderous, racist villain, throwing out a severe racial slur in the powerful final moments of the movie. But her transformation is not out of the blue. Bernadette is always that awful person at the end of the movie right from the beginning. She just manages to hide the hateful, violent side of herself in plain sight until it is too late for Bill (who kind of has it coming) and the poor anonymous being she conjures to take the blame for her. In many ways, she and Bill deserved each other. The audience just doesn’t realize that until after the movie has ended and understands they have spent most of it rooting for the villain.
Character: Peter Nicholas
Movie: GOD TOLD ME TO
Take the angst of being given up for adoption, shake it with a healthy dose of Catholic guilt, add in the confused feeling that you are in some way different from other people so you will never truly be able to connect with anyone, and then give that character a badge and a gun. Surprisingly, that character—Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco)—is the hero and not the villain of GOD TOLD ME TO.
Is there a more tortured character in a movie even before the shit really hits the fan than Peter Nicholas? This profoundly religious man whose marriage could not withstand multiple miscarriages and who cannot move on with his girlfriend because his rigid Catholic beliefs will not permit him to divorce his just as damaged wife needs less stress in his life, not more.
That is what makes it so morbidly fascinating to watch his sanity collapse and his moral center give way in his pursuit of the alien behind a wave of violence. When Peter screams out “Kill me!” after the alien has killed yet another victim, he is not offering himself up as a sacrifice to save others, he is crying out as a suicidal man unable to take his own life because he believes he would be damned to Hell. Lo Bianco is nothing short of amazing (as just one of a string of career-best performances that Cohen got out of his actors) and sells the idea that Peter has to lose everything he loves to be free of everything that is causing him such pain. Others may see the ending of the movie as tragic, I see it as a triumph because Peter is finally free of the faith that only brought him pain and misery.
Character: Frank Davis
Movies: IT’S ALIVE and IT LIVES AGAIN
The thing about Cohen’s best characters is that he and the actors playing them never cared if you liked them or not. Even before his mutated child is born and kills five people in the delivery room, Frank Davis (John P. Ryan) is kind of a pompous asshole. Sure, he does honestly seem to love his wife and son and his joy at the impending birth of his second child is sincere, but even as he plays cards in the waiting room with the other expectant fathers (hey, it was 1974), he still comes off as a smug, above-it-all jackass. Then Cohen then spends the next 75 minutes of IT’S ALIVE stripping away all the things that Frank prizes and believes makes him a real man. Like anyone afflicted with a severe bout of toxic masculinity (I know it was 1974, but it existed back then too; they just didn’t know what to call it), Frank lashes out at others (his wife, her doctors, the media) and focuses in on the one thing that can make him a “real man” again…killing his newborn child for daring to tarnish his name and reputation.
That Cohen not only gets the audience to follow Frank into the darkest parts of his soul, but that we continue to care for him and want him to pull back from the brink is a credit to both the filmmaker and the actor (seriously, what Ryan pulls off here is the best piece of screen acting I’ve ever seen). I hate Frank for the majority of IT’S ALIVE, but I still get goosebumps and teary-eyed when he has his moment of clarity when he comes fully face-to-face with his child. It is the most moving moment I’ve ever experienced in a film and it comes in a pulpy movie about a killer mutant baby. That is some kind of wizardry of great writing and acting.
Character: Jimmy Quinn
Frank Davis in IT’S ALIVE is such a towering character that it took a real force of nature to beat him out for the top spot. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Hurricane Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn in Q…
There are pitiable losers and then there is Jimmy Quinn. He’s the kind of guy you feel bad for when you first meet him, but the more you get to know him, the more you realize his misfortunes aren’t the result of bad luck or the misdeeds of others; everything that goes wrong for Jimmy is his own damn fault. But if that was all there was to Jimmy, you wouldn’t be able to stand him, you’d instead eagerly await the moment Quetzlcoatl tears his head off. That moment never comes, but it is not because Cohen or Moriarty in any way soften Jimmy or make you feel sorry for him. He is arguably just as bad, if not worse at the end of Q as he was at the beginning (although you have to love him for finally getting so fed up that he takes no shit from the nutjob Quetzlcoatl worshipper holding a knife to his throat). So why do we care about Jimmy?
Moriarty’s performance is an all-timer. He sinks deep into character to the point where you can almost smell the flop sweat coming off of him as races around the city, trying to avoid other small-time crooks and the cops until he lucks into the opportunity of a lifetime. And that’s the point where Jimmy becomes an understandable guy to anyone who has ever felt powerless or pushed around because he does the wrong thing with his knowledge of the serpent’s nest instead of doing the moral, upstanding thing. I think most people would immediately alert the authorities to the location of the nest, but if we’re being honest, there would be a small part of the brain that sees the angle that Jimmy does and considers for the briefest of moments how to use that power. That part of Jimmy that believes life has kicked him around so much that he is owed something good for a change is what makes him truly human. Jimmy reflects our darker thoughts back at us and in the end we can’t help but empathize with him because of it.
Click here for the list from Monday, featuring characters 50-41.
Click here for the list from Tuesday, featuring characters 40-31.
Click here for the list from Wednesday, featuring characters 30-21.
Click here for the list from Thursday, featuring characters 20-11.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)
Tags: A Return to Salem's Lot, Bone, Eric Bogosian, God Told Me To, It Lives Again, It's Alive, James Earl Jones, John P. Ryan, Joyce Van Patten, Larry Cohen, michael moriarty, q, sam fuller, Sharon Farrell, Special Effects, Sylvia Sidney, The Ambulance, Tony Lo Bianco, Yaphet Kotto