Private Property

(USA 1960)

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 ( 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 (, 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 ( 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.

79 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) A-

Private Property

We Monsters [Wir Monster]

(Germany 2015)

With We Monsters, Sebastian Ko examines who’s worse in a tough situation: the transgressive child who caused it, or the parents protecting her. Don’t be quick to call it, because the answer isn’t clear.

Self-absorbed and buffoonish Paul (Mendi Nebbou), an ageing newly-divorced musician, and his sour teenaged daughter, Sarah (Janina Fautz), are en route to summer camp when she asks him to pick up her schoolmate Charlie (Marie Bendig). Curiously, Charlie is already waiting on the road—in the middle of the forest where they’re driving. After a petty bicker in the backseat—over a boy, of course—Paul pulls over for a pit stop. The girls disappear, and Paul soon finds Sarah standing on the edge of a dam. She coolly tells him she pushed Charlie off.

Thus begins the drama as Paul and his ex-wife, Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre), struggle with handling Sarah’s deed: how do they hide what she did—and how could they? And why is she so indifferent? We Monsters is a morality play oozing psychological dread worthy of a Hitchcock film, especially when Charlie’s volatile alcoholic father (Ronald Kukulies) comes around looking for her. One cover up leads to another, and soon Paul and Christine are in over their parental heads. But is the situation really what it seems?

A few spots are slow, but We Monsters still kept me riveted. The story for the most part is paced well, and the acting is really good. Andreas Köhler’s cinematography is beautifully understated and drab, letting the characters and the drama take center stage. About an hour in, Ko’s tense tone gives way to something decidedly dark, comic, and ironic—and it plays out nicely. Karma’s truly a bitch.

According to Variety, an American remake is in the works ( Let’s hope it’s half as good, but I doubt it will be: We Monsters is not a story I see resonating with a mainstream American audience without some tweaking that changes the story and kills the mood.

95 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B

White God [Fehér isten]

(Hungary 2014)

Tara Fass of Huffington Post was right on the mark when she called Kornél Mundruczó’s White God “a thrilling and visceral fairy tale.” This particular fairy tale traces the parallel paths of Lili (Zsofia Psotta), a brooding teenager handed off to her father (Sandor Zsoter) for three months, and her dog, Hagen (switch hitters Body and Luke), after the two are separated when Lili’s father abandons Hagen on the street. The two main characters– girl and dog– become increasingly feral left on their own. They’re brought together again after a series of events culminating in a beautifully orchestrated over-the-top canine takeover of the city reminiscent of Hitchcock, Disney, and Tarantino. Think of Old Yeller on crack. Not what I expected, which is what drew me in and kept me watching.

Bonus: all of the dogs in the film were strays that reportedly were adopted after shooting ended.

(Music Box) B+