Is this once-lost film the apex of obscure independent Hollywood filmmaking? Made way outside the limits of the Production Code, it’s even better than I hoped it would be. Leslie Stevens’ ‘backyard movie’ is the work of a directorial wunderkind with an inspired crew. Totally original, with three unforgettable performances.
Blu-ray + DVD
1960 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 79 min. / Street Date November 8, 2016 / 34.99
Starring Kate Manx, Corey Allen, Warren Oates Robert Ward, Jerome Cowan, Jules Maitland.
Cinematography Ted McCord, Conrad Hall
Film Editor Jerry Young
Original Music Pete Rugolo
Film Technology Alexander Singer
Produced by Stanley Colbert
Written and Directed by Leslie Stevens
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I saw Private Property for the first time last night, and came away thinking, ‘these are the most believably complex, twisted, adult screen characters I’ve seen in a long time.’ I also felt that I had witnessed some really extraordinary acting, given perfect direction. I’ll try not to oversell this, but I must report that I am really impressed.
We’ve been reading about Leslie Stevens’ Private Property seemingly forever, as a movie that could not be seen, that was presumed lost. In his The American Cinema Andrew Sarris was exceedingly unkind to it, leading me to expect the independently-made 1960 film to someday appear and be revealed as a big disappointment, or a flawed curiosity like Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire. Sarris wrote, “All that lingers in the mind … is Stevens’ flair for feelthy fetishism and the hauntingly stupid blonde beauty of the late Kate Manx, Stevens’ wife and garish Galatea.” That’s pretty rough. When Sarris wrote his auteur roundup in 1968, he apparently didn’t bother with Leslie Stevens’ third feature, Incubus. Maybe, because he heard that it had been performed in Esperanto, Sarris thought it was just a party joke.
Although I haven’t read the full story of its rebirth, Private Property was discovered sitting safely in a University vault, restored by the UCLA Film Archive last year and re-premiered at several festivals. It plays like yet another branch of creative filmmaking in the ’60s that didn’t get a chance to flower. United Artists released many impassioned indie pictures that were sidelined as ‘arty’ or esoteric films that were generally praised yet passed over, like Jack Garfein’s 1961 Something Wild (expected restored from Criterion soon!) or Alexander Singer’s unusually perceptive A Cold Wind in August. In the case of Private Property it wasn’t a case of mild rejection, but non-availability. Condemned by the Catholics and refused a Code seal, Stevens’ film attracted some pre-release buzz, but interest evaporated with indifferent reviews and a lack of a significant release. it was shunned as a vaguely dirty movie, and vanished from U.S. screens after a couple of weeks. Although it played off and on in Europe, it’s been out of reach here since it was new.
The picture is an almost perfectly judged psychodrama about two unsavory petty criminals, vagabonds in an unhealthy relationship. The brilliant but perverse Duke (Corey Allen) is working out a grudge against a world that has pegged him as a loser. Duke dominates the passive and worshipping Boots (Warren Oates), using him to feel more important. The awkward Boots defers to Duke for everything, even when they pull off the cheap crime of intimidating a gas station attendant, or conning, then threatening, a motorist (Jerome Cowen) into giving them a ride. Entirely up to no good, Duke and Boots set their sights on Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), a blonde in a Corvette. Their object is more ugly than a simple rape — Duke intends to prove his genius by seducing Ann, and then handing her over to Boots, a presumed virgin. They hide in the vacant house next door and spy on Ann in her swimming pool. Duke waits until her husband is missing to drop by, pretending to be a gardener drumming up business. Duke’s subtle suggestions hit their target — Ann is a sexually frustrated, pampered housewife in need of human contact. It takes him more than a day to move from ‘guy ringing doorbell’ to lunch guest, and then drinking & dancing partner. When will the rapists make their move?
Sordid enough for you? Private Property is too well written, directed and especially acted to be pigeonholed with sadistic home invasion fare like the exploitative Lady in a Cage. Literally filmed in Leslie Stevens’ backyard — in only ten days — for reportedly only $60,000 dollar, the show is far superior to movies made for multiples of that amount. Although Warren Oates is now a familiar face, the film’s acting trio was all but unknown in 1960. That gambit adds to the suspense. Stevens’ direction shows not the least sign of budget compromise. His camera team consists of one veteran ace (Ted McCord) backed by a newcomer-genius (Conrad Hall). Together they pull off impressive sequence shots. When the images get a bit tricky, they’re never pretentious. Even the brief suggestions of sexual symbolism — a candle, Duke’s belt — are too well handled to elicit knowing smirks.
So what’s so wicked about Private Property? The script uses no nudity and no outright profanity, but Duke and Boots have a familiar way with phrases like ‘making it’ and derogatory remarks about Ann as they observe her from afar. Referring to their quarry as ‘a cow,’ etc., reflects well the essential insecurity behind Duke’s bragging and painful need to be sexually dominant. Stevens’ script ignores the Hollywood edict that insisted that conventional values be upheld, and that the distribution of moral punishments and rewards be a first priority. Private Property still feels edgy today; in 1960 the thought of these creeps victimizing the inoffensive Ann Carlyle must have seemed an obscenity. The show is sensitive, realistic and reasonably compassionate — but nobody’s idea of a ‘nice’ movie.
The fact that the boys have rape on the brain from frame one, that it’s Subject A at all times, is what brought down the wrath of the Catholics. The Production Code office didn’t have to see overt violations of their thou-shalt-nots to reject the picture outright. A powerful producer like Otto Preminger could toy with the censors, but the establishment had a way of stomping on little films that dared to flout the rules. To distribute Private Property in more than a theater or two was financial suicide, unless the critics pleaded for it as a special case. And many of them saw Leslie Stevens’ film as sick, unworthy.
But Private Property is a brilliant film that pegs contemporary values with uncommon clarity. The first clue comes straight from the title. Ann enjoys the benefits of prosperity, living in a swank house with a great view just above Sunset Blvd., where houses routinely go for $100,000 dollars (!!!). The place has everything — a two-car garage, a fancy kitchen, and a stereo phonograph for Ann to play her Bolero- like dance music. We hear about the money to be made in big insurance deals, in appliance sales, etc.. Those riding the boom economy reap the consumer spoils, and Ann’s bounty includes a new sports car and the ultimate 1960 California status symbol, a private swimming pool. It loses some of its privacy when the trespassing Duke and Boots peep at Ann from the high window next door — a view that’s like a widescreen movie starring everything in the world they want. The inescapable next step is to see Ann Carlyle as another piece of consumer property, an accessory to the perfect life. Always elegant, always presentable for guests, Ann spends her life shopping, swimming, and waiting for a husband who doesn’t return her amorous overtures. Stevens chooses odd angles of Ann splayed out under the sun, or sprawled suggestively on the floor while watching TV. Yet she’s unable to interest her husband. But the sick minded Duke picks up on Ann’s inner need — he can see it from afar. He can sense that his nice-guy seduction / rape approach will work.
Critic Sarris calls Ann dumb and leaves it at that, whereas the movie presents her as a real person in a position of vulnerability. She’s bright-faced, sincere and gullible, as truly sheltered good people can be. There’s real chemistry and tension between Ann and Duke, plus tension between Duke and the clueless, sexually confused Boots. But we also see Duke in conflict with his own self-contradictions. As he carries out his criminal pact, delivering up Ann for his friend, Duke seems to self-destruct. His outrage aimed at common decency is supposed to prove something, to validate his class hatred. Duke can’t handle his own attraction to this woman that doesn’t deserve the fate he’s ordained for her. His only choice is to find a reason to hate her again, and vent his rage all at once. Stevens’ psychodrama has real power. The finish at first seems a little abrupt, but one begins to appreciate what has happened almost immediately.
How sophisticated is the show? It understands the sexual confusion behind the way some men habitually degrade women to avoid asking questions about themselves. Writers mention a homosexual subtext between the two men, they way they interpret sharing a sex conquest as brotherly comradeship. But Duke baits his friend with the truth right up front, saying that Boots is really not looking for a girl, but a ‘sugar daddy’ — and Boots reacts as if a guilty secret has been revealed. How more explicit can the film be? I particularly like the detail when they’re sitting on the ground drinking their stolen orange sodas — a pair of shapely female legs walks past them, twice, and neither one as much as looks up to see what the rest of the woman looks like. They don’t want girl friends, they want to punish women for being out of reach, for being somebody else’s private property.
Doing good work is no guarantee of success in Hollywood. Corey Allen and Kate Manx’s performances are possibly the best on film that year, but who saw them? Marginalized by the bluenoses and dismissed by too many critics, the show might as well have been invisible. The acting in this picture would elicit raves today. Corey Allen reminds me somewhat of a younger Ralph Meeker, but with a smile that’s less shark-like, that can actually be interpreted as sincere. Ms. Manx positively glows with wholesome vulnerability with a strong streak of unfulfilled desires. She seems entirely real, an innocent / not innocent victim that deserves better from men in general.
The new disc label Cinelicious’s Blu-ray + DVD of Private Property appears to come from perfectly preserved printing elements. It looks and sounds so good that the UCLA Archive’s restoration effort is all but invisible. Ted McCord and Conrad Hall’s images capture the hazy look of Malibu beach and the luxurious summer sunshine glistening off the Carlyle pool. They apply special finesse to every setup, as when they filter the close-up where it seems that Ann is finally giving in to her growing crush on the too-convenient Duke.
The clear soundtrack highlights Pete Rugolo’s active music score, which may be the movie’s only component that has dated. Although quieter passages draw us closer to the characters, the music is frequently just a bit too busy and emphatic.
All that’s missing from Cinelicious’ two-disc edition is the full story of how Private Property was recovered. We know not to expect lots of detail about Leslie Stevens’ attitude toward his work or the various tragedies that affected some of his collaborators and loved ones. Search the web about this movie and Incubus if you’re curious. I can recommend Don Malcolm’s Bright Lights Film Journal article Noir’s Edge of Wetness for more background info, plus notes on Leslie Stevens’ strange career.
Malcolm also wrote the informative, concise essay that appears on an insert in the Cinelicious package. We learn through him that Stevens was inspired by Arnold Laven’s Without Warning, a low-budget thriller about a serial killer who also works as a gardener. As part of his analysis, Mr. Malcolm theorizes that Duke’s bitter revolt against society will become the antisocial underside of the later peace & love generation. My own contact with that generation found a lot of self-deception, but not too much in the way of psychotic rage. Twisted conmen like Duke, even ones hiding misogyny and class warfare in their schemes, have always been around and didn’t need social permissiveness to cue their crimes.
The disc also contains a new promo-trailer, and a new interview with the elusive director Alexander Singer, who began the film as its still photographer. Singer then accepted something of a battlefield promotion to unofficial third camera assistant and general technical aide. He doesn’t talk about his own impressive directing career, and instead concentrates on his memories of the apparently ideal production of Private Property. He has plenty of comments about the way certain scenes were captured. He also profiles Kate Manx a bit, maintaining that she wanted very much to be successful and worked extremely hard on the show. From her point of view things didn’t turn out well, but I know of no better movie where a filmmaker played star-maker for his ambitious actress wife.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Private Property Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One DVD and One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 2, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson