It's a peculiarity in Hollywood that producers cannot market what they don't understand: a product which defies the working formula. Then again, sometimes a film comes along so ambitious and accessible they take the plunge. This was the case on Phone Booth. At first glance, this would seem unorthodox: a character driven role taken by a rising star -- Colin Farrell wasn't a household name at the time -- in a single location. Not a battlefield or space... but talking on the phone... to a sniper. This was the brainchild of Larry Cohen, who passed away on March 23 2019 at the age of 78.
Although Cohen's career spanned decades, it was the Joel Schumacher directed Phone Booth which stirred my imagination. The film was extraordinarily original, a beacon for its time. Adding to which, the film pushed the independent envelope by being shot in a mere ten days. This morality tale overflows with visual incidents and dialogue mostly black in comedic tone. Consider the first thing this sniper says to Stu, "Isn't it funny? You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?" In other words, curiosity and reflex occasionally get the better of man.
From an industry standpoint, Cohen was a renegade, often defying strict union rules by filming without a permit (see Black Caesar and Maniac Cop) while squeezing as much potential out of the tiny budget as possible.
This brings me to a compelling subject. What was Maniac Cop? An exploitation slasher commenting upon the abuse of power? Absolutely. Written and produced by Cohen, the film cleverly knocks around a whodunit premise, masking the tall killer's face in silhouette with lots of night shooting, a shady hero and compelling dialogue. You can seat this in the pleasurably guilty hot spot. I enjoyed it mainly due to some imaginative set-pieces.
Finally, what does Cohen's legacy leave us with? Because "creation is an act of sheer will," there are many reasons for a storyteller to talk themselves out of doing something: time, money, studio pressure etc. Cohen reminds us to seize the opportunity, to freely embrace ideas no matter the controversy or potential fallout. He was a brave and innovative artist.
For more information about the life and career of this filmmaker, in-depth studies include the 2017 documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen and the biography Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters, written by Michael Doyle.
Larry Cohen (1941-2019)