God Told Me To

 

God Told Me To (1976) aka Demon Directed by Larry Cohen Shown: Poster Art

God Told Me To

Release Date: October 22, 1976

Genre: Crime, Horror, Sci-Fi

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sam Levene, Mike Kellin, Richard Lynch

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

We’re now on to the second movie in the Larry Cohen Tribute Special. For this review, we’re going to be looking at a social commentary quasi science fiction movie about religion. It looks at how religion can influence the minds of those who believe in the scriptures. It influences them so much that they go out and do horrible things. It’s a movie that was not a success when it first came out, but over the years grew into an important film tackling this kind of subject. This review we will be looking at 1976’s ‘God Told Me To!’

The movie begins with a man on top of a water tower who opens fire on people walking the street with a .22 caliber rifle. His actions result in the death of fifteen people. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) is called in to stop the sniper. He climbs the water tower and talks to the sniper about why he is doing what he is doing. The sniper responds by telling Peter, “God told me to!” before jumping off the water tower to his death. The incident would be the first of many random murders to come throughout the movie all with the suspects seemingly implying that they were told by God to kill. As Peter investigates these strange acts, his clues lead him to a man named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch) who is the leader of a religious cult who according to the members has psychic powers and is controlling the minds of people to commit murder. Peter pursues Phillips through various avenues where he will be shocked about what he has discovered not only about Phillips, but about himself.

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This is perhaps Larry Cohen’s most bizarre and controversial movie as it deals with religion and religious extremism. Cohen deals with the rationalization believers go to in order to follow “the word of God.” There is extremism in every religion. You have people killing each other in the name of religion. Everyone believes their religion is one true religion and that those who practice something else is a heathen, infidel, unbeliever, etc. The movie also deals with cultism as the antagonist is the leader of a cult who is controlling the minds of others to kill people to spread his message. It’s relatable to this day with all the numerous cults that are out today. You could compare this film today to the rhetoric of Scientology.

Cohen brings in a cast of well-respected veteran working actors to assist with his vision with Tony Lo Bianco playing the lead as Detective Peter Nicholas. Lo Bianco doesn’t look like a lead actor, but he is the meat and potatoes of the story. In addition to dealing with these crimes and looking at the religious aspect, he is also dealing with his own beliefs. Peter Nicholas is shown throughout the movie as a devout Catholic. You see shots of him in a Church praying, talking to his wife about going to confession and begins to question his faith as these random murders continue. He’s also conflicted in his ranks as he feels that he is on his own with the investigation, not receiving support from his fellow police officers. The supporting cast features Deborah Raffin as Casey Forster who is Peter’s mistress, Sandy Dennis as Peter’s wife Martha whom is on the verge of divorcing him, Sylvia Sidney as Elizabeth Mullin who becomes a central figure in the film and has a connection to Bernard Phillips and Mike Kellin of ‘Midnight Express and ‘Sleepaway Camp’ fame as the Deputy Commissioner who is desperately trying to get the situation under control. Finally, you have the antagonist Bernard Phillips in a chilling performance by Richard Lynch. He appears in all gold and glowing, kind of like Jesus (which is what Cohen based Phillips on). Everything he does in the movie is to get Nicholas to come to him for which he makes a shocking revelation to Nicholas and unveils his master plan.

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As is customary in a Larry Cohen movie, Cohen fills the scenes with stolen shots and unplanned sequences which gives the movie a realistic tone. Cameras are placed all over the city to get many intriguing shots of the city and the everyday people who walk and commute in it. The most iconic scene in the movie is Cohen shoots the St. Patrick’s Day Parade filled with thousands of New York City Police Officers and features a cameo from comedian Andy Kauffman dressed up as an officer. Again, they didn’t have permission to shoot the parade so there are many shots of the police overhead, the Mayor and city officials and of course Kauffman. It’s great to see the unscripted reactions of fellow officers when they recognize Kauffman. They though Kauffman was doing another one of his typical jokes.

While Cohen was unable to return legendary film composer Bernard Hermann to score this movie after previous scoring ‘It’s Alive’ due to his untimely death, Cohen brings in Frank Cordell to the music. Cordell provides booming biblical tones which adds another dimension to the movie. The music is placed appropriately through tension scenes and plot reveals.

The pacing of the movie starts out quick and gutsy. By the time the second and third act come around things start to slow down creating a feeling of unbalance. The events and situations seem to jump around. I think this is in part to the condensed schedule that Cohen had when making this film.

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‘God Told Me To’ was not well received when it first opened. Critics including Roger Ebert vivisected this film. However, as time went by, critics revisited this movie and like its premise, it’s become a cult film. Rolling Stone listed it as one of “20 Scariest Films You’ve Never Seen!” [1] If you’re a fan of movies with crazy and weird plots, this movie is for you. You could even joke with people that ‘God told me to watch this movie!’

That concludes the second movie in the Larry Cohen Tribute Special. Next week we continue the special with another film of his that has had widespread acclaim and legacy. Don’t miss out!

TRIVIA

  • Composer Bernard Herrmann, Larry Cohen’s first choice to score the film, died that night after seeing the film without music. The film is dedicated to Hermann in his honor.
  • Larry Cohen did not have a permit to film the scene at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but he did it anyway.
  • According to Larry Cohen, during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade scene, he was organizing the crew, only to see Andy Kaufman, dressed in his policeman’s uniform, antagonizing and making faces at the crowd. Some of the crowd members then attempted to jump the barricades and beat Kaufman, and Cohen had to hold them back.
  • Tony Lo Bianco accidentally broke actor William Roerick’s rib performing CPR in the heart attack scene.
  • Many years after the film’s release, a 70-something year old Larry Cohen stated in an interview that a young French filmmaker had asked him if he could remake the film. He couldn’t remember who this guy was, but he had left some of his films for Cohen to see, and when he took them out, that young French filmmaker turned out to be no other than Gaspar Noé.
  • When Larry Cohen asked composer Miklós Rózsa to score this picture, Rozsa replied, “God told me not to.”
  • Tony Lo Bianco replaced Robert Forster.

AUDIO CLIPS

Police Debrief

God Told Me To

How Would You Like To Be Mugged By A Detective?

You Confess Everything To The Priest

The Irish Have Waited All Year For This Day

People Like That Got No Business

Say It

You Have No Pity

Come On That’s Crap

Discipline Through Fear

Religious Editor Is On The Second Floor

He Truly Believes

Fight Him

Women Claim That They Were Laid By The Almighty

He Can Make Us Know What He Wishes

All My Life I Felt So Close To God

You’ve Tested Yourself

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The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover

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The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

Release Date: December 1977

Genre: Biography, Drama

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: Broderick Crawford, James Wainwright, Michael Parks, Dan Dailey, Jose Ferrer, Celese Holm

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

Recently, the film world lost an original and innovative auteur. Larry Cohen was known in the industry as a guerrilla filmmaker. He made his movies outside of Hollywood with no permits, no permission and no rules. His films tackled many issues from African Americans in society, to marketing and consumerism, from hidden agendas, to the effects chemicals and pollution have on human beings. He was a pioneer in the Independent film industry. You can easily tell a Larry Cohen movie by the style and substance. His movies have lived on to this day with legions of fans continuing to watch them.

For the month of May, ‘Guilty Pleasure Cinema Review’ will be looking at five of Larry Cohen’s movies. Some may be familiar to fans of certain genres. Others are overlooked gems that don’t get much attention in his filmography. Although Larry Cohen is most famous in the world of horror, I did my best to not make all five movies horror based. The first movie I will review is one that doesn’t get much attention in the discussion of Cohen movies. It’s a semi-biographical film about the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, J. Edgar Hoover and how he molded and shaped the United States Government’s biggest investigative agency that is effective yet controversial. The first film in the Larry Cohen Tribute Month is 1977’s ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.’

‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’ is a well-crafted semi-documentary style drama about the United States’ top chief law enforcement. For his nearly fifty-year career, Hoover was the top cop in Washington. He served under eight United States Presidents starting with Calvin Coolidge and ending with Richard Nixon.  He became the nation’s ‘Top Cop’ at the age of 29. The film shows him taking on mobsters, communists and people within his own government. His brash and unorthodox style of tackling crime earns him a reputation that is feared not only by criminals, but people within the government. Anyone that would dare test his power would be subjected to wiretaps and blackmail. With the power came suspicions and paranoia which is shown through several scenes throughout the movie, especially when he is a room alone with a woman.

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The title of the movie comes from the files that Hoover was known to have kept regarding his adversaries. He was known to have information on everyone from his subordinates to Presidents. Larry Cohen depicts how Hoover deciphered the information he had on people and used it to discredit them or ensure that his power remained unchecked. The best example of this is a scene involving Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by Raymond St. Jacques). Hoover is determined to unmask Dr. King as a fraud which creates a tension filled moment when the two confront each other in the offices of the FBI.

Academy Award Winner Broderick Crawford stars as the titular icon that is Hoover. Crawford is the spitting image of Hoover on screen. He is stoic, and stone faced throughout the movie as you follow along with him as he goes deep into his head thinking, planning and executing his strategies. Everything he does from his tone of dialogue to mannerisms are all associated with the real J. Edgar Hoover. Crawford nails Hoover’s slumped forward posture and authoritative voice. It’s an incredible work of method acting I haven’t seen since Peter Weller’s performance in ‘Robocop’ or Michael Moriarty’s portrayal of Jimmy Quinn in another Larry Cohen film, ‘Q: The Winged Serpent!’ James Wainwright plays Hoover in his early years in the department and he is as exceptionally good. Wainwright’s Hoover deals with taking on the mafia, mainly pursuing John Dillinger and engaging in a popularity struggle with Melvin Purvis, the man who would take Dillinger down.

In addition to Crawford, there are some great supporting performances most notably from Dan Dailey as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand man and most trusted confidant. They are joined at the hip and seem inseparable which sparks the rumors from the press about their relationship being more than professional. Jose Ferrer plays Lionel McCoy another trusted liaison in Hoover’s inner circle is the quiet one of the bunch, but carries out the rules and regulations of the department as Hoover demands and Celeste Holm has a small performance as Florence Hollister, the wife of an ambassador whom tries to seduce Hoover which backfires as Hoover will not do anything that could leak to the press nor destroy his reputation at the bureau.

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If you read my review of ‘Black Caesar’ (another great Larry Cohen film), I mentioned that on of the things that makes Cohen stand out from the rest of filmmakers is his ability to ‘steal shots’. Cohen shoots his movies on location and without permission. To avoid getting caught by authorities, he would place cameras out of plain sight and shoot what was there. When the movie first began production, Cohen shot in the streets of Washington. They wanted to shoot inside several government buildings including the FBI. They were easily rejected when the request to shoot came up. However, first lady Betty Ford intervened when she found out who was in the movie. Mrs. Ford was a former dancer and was a huge fan of actor Dan Dailey, who plays Hoover’s eventual successor Clyde Tolson in the movie and invited him and Broderick Crawford to the White House for lunch. At the luncheon Dailey and Crawford explained how they were here to make a movie. When they told her some of the places they would like to shoot, President Gerald Ford gave Cohen permission to shoot inside the FBI. With that permission, Cohen was able to shoot scenes inside the FBI (including Hoover’s office and offices of others) as well as the FBI Outdoor Training Grounds. What you saw in the movie was the real deal. No sets, no shooting in other locations, nothing.

The only thing that stood out to me in terms of the negatives of the movie is the casting. Most of the actors cast in the movie didn’t look or act like the character they were playing. Michael Parks plays Robert Kennedy who doesn’t look anything like him however he did give considerable effort getting that thick New England accent down. Howard Da Silva as FDR, William Jordan as JFK, Andrew Duggan as LBJ and Richard Dixon as Nixon (Funny right?). None of those men had the look or personality of the president they were portraying. If Jon Voight as FDR, Martin Sheen as JFK, Bryan Cranston as LBJ and Frank Langella as Nixon are considered the Coca-Cola of presidential portrayals, these guys in this movie would be the Diet Rite version.

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If you’re looking to start watching Larry Cohen movies, you may want to watch this after you’ve seen some of his more popular work. When you get to ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’, you may look at biopic films in a new light. I personally believe this is a better representation of Hoover than Clint Eastwood’s movie ‘J. Edgar’. Crawford’s performance keeps your attention focused at everything he does and how he became the most powerful person in government. With that power comes corruption and there’s plenty of things that show it in the film. It may change your opinion on Hoover depending on how you feel about him today.

With that the first review in the ‘Larry Cohen Tribute Special’ is now complete. I will be posting a new review each week until the end of the month. For updates on postings, please be sure to follow my page here on WordPress or you can follow me on Twitter @GPCRMovies. I’ll see you soon with the second review in our special.

 

TRIVIA

  • Director Larry Cohen wanted to film at various authentic locations but was repeatedly turned down for permission. However, when First Lady Betty Ford – a former dancer – found out that Dan Dailey was in Washington to make a film, she invited him and Broderick Crawford to the White House for lunch, as she had always liked Dailey’s films and work. Larry Cohen then started calling locations such as the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia, and said that he wanted to film there but couldn’t do so the next day because the cast was having lunch at the White House; likely supposing that the film had official backing, every location soon made themselves available.
  • Several people who were real-life acquaintances of J. Edgar Hoover are featured in the film, including the barber who regularly cut his hair and his regular waiter at the Mayflower Hotel.
  • This was Jack Cassidy’s final film, issued one year after his death at age 49.
  • The film cast includes three Oscar winners: Broderick Crawford’, Celeste Holm and José Ferrer; and three Oscar nominees: Rip Torn, John Marley and Ronee Blakley.
  • The film had a formal screening at the Kennedy Center, but members of both parties in the largely political audience were irritated by the film’s unflattering depiction of not only Republicans such as Richard Nixon, but also Democrats such as the Kennedys and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

 

AUDIO CLIPS

Going To Miss Having My Room Searched

Hoover’s Entry Into The FBI

The Boy Scout

Just A Clerk

Top Cop

There’s No Romance In A Dead Rat

I’ve Always Kinda Liked Post Toasties

You’re Always There

Why Don’t You Come In And Ask Her To Dance?

You’re His Boss

I Needed The Exercise

His Time Has Passed

Got A Lot Of Important People To Spy On

Now They Call Me A Senile Old Man

They Haven’t Got Us Out Yet

Couple Old Ferries

We’re Spying On Everyone

Black Caesar

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Black Caesar

Release Date: February 7, 1973

Genre: Action, Drama, Crime

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund, D’Urville Martin

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

Perhaps the most underrated and underappreciated filmmaker in cinema is Larry Cohen. He started out his career as a writer for studio-based television show to getting his opportunity to write and direct his own movies.  He was a pioneer of the independent film industry by creating the most innovating low budget movies of our time that dealt with social issues and commentary on American culture. His well-known films include “It’s Alive” which is about a mutant baby being born and “The Stuff” which is an intergalactic organism with the taste and texture of yogurt that gets the consuming public addicted.  Those films have become a staple in the horror community. Nowadays Cohen focuses more of screenplay writing and has written many scripts for some blockbuster movies (ironic since he’s always had a disdain for Hollywood).  After recently watching a documentary on Cohen’s career, there was one film that stood out as I was watching it that peaked my interest. It was a film from 1973 that is regarding by many as one of the best movies you’ve never seen before. The movie I’m referring to is called “Black Caesar!”

“Black Caesar” (or “Godfather of Harlem” as it was called in the United Kingdom) is a crime drama that tells the story of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson). Tommy is raised in Harlem, New York city during the 50s. As a boy, he would be beaten by a cop named McKinney who would also throw racial slurs at him. The stigmatization of these incidents leads him to a path of crime. When Tommy becomes an adult in the 60s, he joins the mafia and becomes head of the black crime syndicate in Harlem. As his power and influence grows, Tommy splinters from the mafia starting his own empire and eliminating the competition. Like most crime films, as soon as Tommy reaches his peak, he starts to decline as numerous people are out to get him.

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“Black Caesar” was hailed as a critically acclaimed masterpiece for a low budget independent movie. The response from the viewing audience led Cohen to make a follow up film called “Hell Up In Harlem,” which would be released the same year in December.  The godfather of soul James Brown composed the music for the film which became a hit soundtrack and many musical pieces would be sampled by prominent hip hop musicians in the 90s. On average, the movie ranks in the Top 3 among Larry Cohen’s best films trailing behind the aforementioned horror flicks.

The film is garnered as a blaxploitation film which if you aren’t familiar with the term it means an ethnic sub-genre of exploitation movies in which African American characters and communities are the subject and are portrayed as the heroes rather than victims of brutality and segregation. The term was coined by Junius Griffin who was the head of the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during this period. (1)  While technically a blaxploitation movie, I didn’t see it this way. I found “Black Caesar” to be an original crime film with flair and style. There is so much to enjoy from this movie. Everything works clockwork from the characters to the story to the action to the music. Being a fan of crime movies, I’m surprised it took me this long to discover this film.

There’s enough going on in this movie to please fans of gangster movies. There’s action, violence, colorful characters. It follows the same character arc as in the first two “Godfather” movies and “Scarface.” You have someone climbing the ladder and reaching the top of power only to slowly start falling down the mountain and crashing into the ravine.

Fred Williamson who plays Tommy owns the film throughout its duration. Much like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson (in his early years of course) Williamson was a professional football player who played in the American Football League during the 60s and transitioned into acting after his playing days were over. He is strong, confident and handsome and he oozes of machismo all throughout this film. Through his brutal forceful tactics, he earns the respect of his fellow henchmen and the ire of the crime syndicates in New York. Always carrying his Mauser C96 “Red 9” pistol, Williamson dominates the screen as he sets out on his plan to create his own criminal empire and seek revenge on those who may have wronged him in the past. How Williamson turns out could have been overplayed or underplayed by an actor with more ego, but he brushes that aside and creates a magnifying character with a similar arc to Michael Corleone or Tony Montana. Williamson proves he can be a leading actor on many scales.

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The rest of the supporting cast is small but fit into the plot. You have Gloria Hendry who plays Helen, a singer that Tommy falls in love with and marries. As Tommy is building his gang, she becomes unhappy and tries her best to get him to stop while he can much to no avail. You also have D’Urville Martin who plays Reverend Rufus, a preacher who grew up with Tommy in the same building who gets some involvement with Tommy’s group but keeps his distance due to his oath to God and the Church. Then you have Art Lind who plays the bigoted cop McKinney. He is as dirty as they come, and Lind shows that throughout his scenes. He continues to berate and slander Tommy even during his ascension into the crime world. Tommy has the stomach to handle McKinney until the time comes to take him out once and for all.

The film is primarily shot in New York City and Harlem with one scene being shot in California at Larry Cohen’s house (which you will see appear in many of his films). Cohen, born and raised in New York City gives the audience an intimate look of life in the big city especially in its neighborhoods. Cohen was able to get a lot of scenes done in Harlem due to making deals with the local gangs and from there you see a part of New York City that isn’t shown much in today’s movies and television series. It shows the racial makeup and the tensions going on during the time. Remember, this was before the Civil Rights Act.

I will caution you that ‘Black Caesar’ is as graphic of a movie as it could be. Not so much in terms of violence, but there are suggestive themes and concepts. Obviously, there is a lot of racial slander between the characters, again in part due to the time period that the movie takes place. There is also a rape scene and a domestic violence scene that could make you uneasy. It sure did for me. These things would not pass today in our society and culture. I don’t think this movie would even be released in theaters today unless they cut a bunch of things out and clean up the language.

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James Brown wrote and compose the music to “Black Caesar.” The Godfather of Soul provides a mix of smoking R&B to the sound of funky disco. The music is appropriately fitted within the movie to give it emotion, character and intensity. Many people consider his soundtrack to be the best album Brown has ever released.

People credit Larry Cohen with the concept of “stealing” scenes. What “stealing” means in this context is the ability to shoot scenes with no permits. There were no permits for this movie, so everything that was shot was by stealth and trickery. For example, the overhead shots in the movie were done by setting cameras up on corner roofs of buildings or on light posts. The car chase sequence was a real car chase where roads weren’t blocked off for shooting and you had bystanders going about their business. The scene where Tommy is shot and is stammering throughout the road and sidewalks, you get a mixed reaction from people. Some in typical New York fashion ignore his cries for help while others express great concern or shock. You see some people reaching out to Tommy to see if he needs assistance. Getting those raw unscripted reactions from ordinary people heightens the quality of the movie.

If I had to rank the Top 10 Gangster Movies, I would put “Black Caesar” easily in the Top 5 or maybe in the Top 3. As stated in the beginning, it’s a movie with a lot of flair, and style. There’s enough going on to satisfy the gangster movie fan. Overall, it’s very underrated and entertaining. It’s a surprise gem that sadly gets overlooked due to the heavyweight titans of “The Godfather Trilogy,” “Scarface,” “Goodfellas,” etc. If you’re able to find this movie at your local movie store, Amazon or other streaming services, you should check this movie out. If you enjoy it, you’ll be ready to move forward in Larry Cohen’s film chronology which only gets better.

 

(1) James, Darius (1995). That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury). ISBN0-312-13192-5.

 

TRIVIA

  • Originally offered to Sammy Davis Jr., who turned it down.
  • When filming in Harlem, Larry Cohen was accosted by local gangsters who threatened to disrupt the shoot unless they were paid off. Instead, Cohen offered them small roles in the film. They helped so enthusiastically that they attended the premiere to sign autographs.
  • The name Caesar is never spoken in the movie.

 

AUDIO CLIPS

Shine Em Up Good

Down And Out In New York City – James Brown Song

You’ve Never Seen Me

You’re The Big Brain

Sammy, Don’t Disfigure The Man

Sauce Needed Some More Meat

The Boss – James Brown Song

Never Fear

We’ll Make Sure The Garbage Is Picked Up

Play A Couple Tunes

Somebody Call Down For A Shine?

I Want Him Nice And Fat

Sleep Well, Mr. Gibbs

Who’s Lincoln?

Been Waiting 25 Years To Kill You

I Miss My Old Bed

Heal Him Lord