Private Property, a weird and fascinating psychological thriller written and directed by Leslie Stevens and shot over the course of five days in 1959, is the best film I never heard of. Believed “lost” for decades, a print was recently discovered in the UCLA film archives, restored, and shown for the first time in more than half a century just this past May at the TCM Classic Film Festival (https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/2016-tcm-classic-film-festival-private-property-1960/)(http://filmfestival.tcm.com/programs/films/private-property/). It is, in a word, a treat.
Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates) are two shady Southern California vagabonds who subsist by stealing, usually intimidating their victims into giving them what they want—orange soda, cigarettes, a lift to Beverly Hills. All it takes is Duke’s thinly veiled threats delivered in his cold, menacing manner and a flash of their knives. The boys are sitting on the sidewalk outside the gas station on the Pacific Coast Highway where they just scored some loot when Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), a beautiful kept housewife in a Corvette, pulls in to ask the attendant for directions. Duke is clearly intrigued by Ann, and he immediately hatches a demented plan to follow her and get Boots, a virgin, laid for the first time.
Ann unwittingly leads them to the Hollywood Hills, where she lives a seemingly idyllic life in a gorgeous home with her husband, Roger (Robert Ward), an insurance executive. Duke and Boots scope out the area and find an empty house for sale right next door to Ann. They squat there and spy on her from an upstairs window as she sunbathes, swims, gardens, eats, and comes and goes throughout the day.
In the privacy of their home, it becomes plain that Roger is more interested in work than in Ann, who not so subtly throws herself at him—splayed out on the living floor with her legs spread in one scene, and all dolled up in a negligee (no doubt from Frederick’s) in another—but can’t seem to get him to take a bite of her apple, so to speak. She stands in front of their bed and cries when she emerges from her dressing room ready for love one night, only to find him sound asleep.
Duke, who deduces that she’s unfulfilled, devises an introduction with Ann: he knocks on her door after Roger leaves for work and poses as a day worker looking for someone else’s house—the Hitchcock residence, of all places. He makes small talk about landscaping and offers to do some gardening work. The exchange sets off an unsettling connection that culminates in a bizarre lunch date in the back yard when Roger flies to San Francisco for the day.
Even with its flaws, I absolutely loved this film—it completely lured me with all it’s got going on. Simmering with sexual tension, ambiguity, and mystery, Stevens lets the plot unfold slowly, step by eerie step—very much like Hitchcock or, much later, David Lynch. It works: Duke is a psychopath, and watching him plot his next move made my skin crawl as much as it kept me glued to the screen. Boots is gay. His relationship with Duke is strange and undefined: it’s not clear whether they’re lovers, but Boots is definitely the submissive one. Roger is asexual. Manx, who has a sweet Barbara Eden thing about her and who was married to Stevens when Private Property was shot (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-leslie-stevens-1159807.html), brilliantly depicts the gamut of feelings Ann goes through: frustration, confusion, longing, hope, and loneliness. She’s a vulnerable character, and it hurts to watch her at times. Side note: knowing that Manx committed suicide a few years later makes her performance here all the more tragic (http://mobile.nytimes.com/1964/11/17/kate-manxactress-is-suicide.html). Ted McCord’s shimmering black and white cinematography and camera work add a ton of character to an already stylish and unusual film.
Promoted as “the boldest story of a planned seduction ever to scald the screen,” Private Property had to be scandalous in its day. It promises the kind of smut in a pulp paperback. It’s simultaneously groundbreaking—for its time, anyway—with its subject matter, yet surprisingly inoffensive. Sex is not shown—it’s all implied. Ann never says she’s horny—she shows it, for example, by rubbing along her neck the big phallic stopper of a huge perfume bottle and lying in bed with Duke’s belt under a towel next to her (oddly, she also puts his belt around her neck at one point). Profanity is whitewashed—in one of the film’s most ludicrous moments, an exasperated Duke utters, “What the flop?” He doesn’t call Boots “gay” or even “homosexual”—the closest he gets is something about finding a daddy.
The ending is disappointingly predictable, but it’s not so bad that it ruins the wonderfully suspenseful ride that brought us to it. From a historical perspective, Private Property stands as a seething criticism of post-War American values. It’s also got great exteriors of a long gone Los Angeles. I won’t forget this one.