Private Property (1960)
Written and directed by Leslie Stevens
Produced by Stanley Colbert
Cinematography by Ted McCord
Edited by Jerry Young
Citation Films (1960)
Cinelicious Pics (2016)
(1:19) Kanopy Streaming
If you’ve never heard of the 1960 film Private Property, it’s perfectly understandable. Not only did the film’s original distributor go out of business, the movie was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which meant no production code seal of approval, which meant no mainstream theaters would touch it. Many of the critics who managed to see the film were disgusted by it (Film Quarterly considered it “shaded pornography”) and audiences - including John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie - were offended, horrified, and/or depressed by the low-budget feature. The film fell out of circulation for over 30 years and thought to be lost until a print was discovered in 2015, resulting in a Blu-ray and DVD release in 2016 from Cinelicious Pics.
So what exactly is Private Property? A home invasion film? A The Postman Always Rings Twice wannabe? Or just your garden variety thriller? Perhaps it’s something else entirely.
At the film’s opening, we find a couple of low-life drifters named Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates), looking for their next thrill by hanging around a Los Angeles area gas station.
An attractive blonde (Kate Manx) pulls up to the station, instantly mesmerizing Duke and Boots, so much so that they decide to follow her, catching a ride with a gas station customer named Ed (Jerome Cowan, forever remembered as Miles Archer in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon). Duke forces Ed at knifepoint to follow the blonde, while promising Boots that he’ll fix things up so that Boots can have his first “experience” with a woman.
After a not-so-friendly goodbye to Ed, Duke and Boots follow the woman on foot, discovering that she and her husband live in a remote Hollywood Hills home, complete with swimming pool and a nearby house that’s currently - and conveniently - vacant. From that vantage point, Duke and Boots determine two things: the woman frequently goes swimming wearing only a bathing cap, and her husband is often away. Duke once again promises that he’ll set things up with the woman so that Boots can “have” her.
Beyond his posing as a gardner/handyman, I won’t go into the details of how Duke introduces himself to the woman we come to know as Ann, but he’s smarter and craftier than he looks. Boots is relegated to watching them from a window of the the vacant house, his desire aching and burning. It’s a slow build-up for awhile and we initially wonder why Ann just doesn’t ask Duke to leave her alone. Perhaps she’s looking for a little excitement. Her husband is gone a lot and even when he’s home, he seems indifferent to her subtle (and not-so-subtle) advances.
For a long time, we’re never really sure where Private Property is going. Its slow burn confounds our expectations, and events play out in ways that border on out-and-out creepiness, particularly during a negotiating scene between Duke and Boots. “Do you want her dead or alive?” Duke asks Boots.
Oates (in one of his early performances) isn’t given as much to do as Allen (infamous as Buzz Gunderson, the gang leader in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause), but he makes the most of his role in a couple of scenes. When the shabbily-dressed Boots meets Ann, Duke introduces him as an appliance sales manager. During lunch, Boots notices that Ann isn’t eating much. “I’m trying to lose weight,” she tells him. Boots responds with “Where would you lose it from?”, a remark that brings a look from Ann that’s worth the price of admission. Boots not only has little experience with women, he has little experience in conversing with people. When he tries to manufacture a story to go with his ridiculous appliance sales manager cover, it’s priceless. It’s also a sneak preview of the greatness that Oates would display throughout his career.
Duke continually reminds Boots that his interest isn’t in Ann, only in setting her up for Boots, but as the deception evolves, Boots begins to doubt him. As Ann and Duke dance to “Bolero”-type music, Boots’s jealousy increases. After a few drinks, Ann is in something of a dreamlike state, conveyed as we see the couple filmed through a liquor glass, distorting the normal world of her ordered and proper home. The situation escalates and goes places that would no doubt disturb audiences in 1960 and still disturbs today. Although we’ve seen much more intensity in such films since then, Private Property remains creepily unsettling and effective.
Private Property creates and sustains a level of tension and unpredictability that works well today, despite the fact that we’ve watched nearly 60 years of thrillers since the film’s release. Stevens’s screenplay never tips its hand as to what its characters are really thinking, which forces the audience to constantly evaluate their actions. Is Duke really determined to help Boots in his quest to find a woman? Is Ann really bored enough with her husband to entertain the thought of a fling with another man? On paper, none of the three main characters give us much, but what the actors do with these characters deepens an already strong level of tension. Perhaps because we have seen 60 years of thrillers, we think we know what’s coming next, but Private Property offers many surprises.
Without a proper distributor, Private Property was seen on a very limited scale in America, but it made over $2 million in Europe, whose markets were not limited by the Production Code. The film cost only about $60,000, so the overseas profits were quite impressive. The writer and director of the movie, Leslie Stevens, went on write, direct, and produce several other movies and television shows, most famously creating the television series The Outer Limits (1963-1965). At the time, Stevens was married to Kate Manx and they decided that shooting the film in their own Hollywood Hills home would save a lot of money. You have to wonder if Stevens was primarily interested in showing off both his home and his wife, to say nothing of subjecting her to such unusual treatment onscreen. Stevens and Manx divorced four years later and in four months, Manx was dead from an overdose of sleeping pills.
Private Property also benefits from great cinematography. Hiring Ted McCord was a smart move. If you’re going to make a low-budget picture, don’t skimp on your director of photography. The acting, direction, editing… really every aspect of the film rises far beyond its meager budget. All the film needs is to be seen. You can purchase the region-free Blu-ray/DVD from Cinelicious or watch it on Kanopy if your public library offers that service. Highly recommended.
Photos: DVD Beaver