J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Private Property: The Lost California Noir

It seems like bad karma to shoot a home invasion-slash-class conscious seduction thriller in your own home, with your wife starring as the predator’s target, but as an early independent filmmaker, Leslie Stevens had to make do with the resources available to him. Sadly, their marriage ended badly, but Stevens would have quite the interesting career, helming the Esperanto-language horror film Incubus, creating The Outer Limits, and writing the MST3K­-skewered TV movie, Riding with Death, amongst other projects. Long considered lost, his indie noir feature directorial debut has been rediscovered and fully restored, in all its black-and-white hothouse glory. The sun shines bright, but California is a dark place in Stevens’ Private Property (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Duke and Boots might have been banished from a Steinbeck novel for giving seedy drifters a bad name. They make no secret of their violent tendencies, shaking down service station owners for free sodas and traveling salesmen for rides considerably out of their way. For obvious reasons, they just got it into their heads to follow Ann Carlyle, so they forced poor Ed Hogate to oblige. As ill fortune would have it, there happens to be an empty house overlooking the Carlyle McMansion. From their perch they can watch her swimming in the buff (but not the audience, because this was 1960).

Of course, the creepy tramps are not content to watch. Both are sexually attracted to her (notwithstanding their homoerotic tension), but the more passive Boots claims Duke “owes” him a woman. The wiry sociopath duly promises to “arrange” matters for his companion, but he clearly seems interested in her for his own sake when he approaches her under the guise of a freelance gardener looking for work. Against her better judgment, Carlyle keeps devising odd jobs for Duke. Initially, she is motivated by rich liberal guilt, but she is increasingly tempted by his raw, animalistic sexuality. Of course, the ominous courtship is likely to end badly, given Duke’s erratic personality.

Property is a seriously strange film in many respects. Although it is never explicit per se, it addresses sexual predation in uncomfortable frank terms, even by today’s standards. It is also one of the few fully realized California noirs. Veteran Hollywood cinematographer Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden) uses light and reflections rather stunningly in key scenes. Stevens’ Beverly Hills home and its trappings also have the perfect look of hip, striving swankiness, circa 1960.

Although he is best remembered as James Dean’s adversary in Rebel without a Cause, future TV director Corey Allen’s performance as Duke ranks alongside movie psychopaths like Max Cady in Cape Fear (either one) and Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. There is something absolutely foul about him, yet he can turn on the sinister charisma. As Boots, Warren Oates well compliments him with a different sort of resentful, passive aggressive menace. It is too bad life did not work out better for Kate Manx, because she is terrific as Carlyle. It is also a gas to see veteran character actor Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon and the DA in Miracle on 34th Street) turn up as the salesman who is strong-armed into following Ms. Carlyle.

Despite the sun and the swimming pool, Property is noir in every way. It is a shame it fell off the face of the earth for so long, but it is definitely worth catching up with. Highly recommended for fans of classic film noir and independent cinema, Private Property opens this Friday (7/1) in New York, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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