Determining where trenchant psycho-sexual commentary ends and voyeuristic sleaze begins can be a dicey business, but if all such cases were as energetic and entertaining as Leslie Stevens’s “lost” 1960 independent picture Private Property we’d be better off.
Set in the sun-bleached Los Angeles hills at the cusp of the sexual revolution (and its bloody Manson family nadir), Private Property seems, at first, mere fodder for raincoat-wearing deviants. But there’s too much negative space in the screenplay to leave it at that. Watching in 2016, thanks to an undertaking by the UCLA Film & Television Archive working with Turner Classic Movies and Cinelicious Pics, one feels compelled to hurl problematic yellow cards at the screen. Indeed, appealing to a base crowd of perverts may very well have been an original goal from a marketing point of view. However, the aching performances by Corey Allen, Warren Oates and Kate Manx, and the cinematography by Ted McCord (employing a young Conrad Hall as his operator) are sufficient reason to give this production, which was hardly seen in the US but a minor success in Europe, the benefit of the doubt.
We open with a hazy dawn, as two figures emerge on to a highway from the surf. The bigger, brutish Boots (Oates) has his shirt open, as crafty Duke (Allen) strides to a service station and asks threateningly for an orange-flavoured soda pop, with no intention of paying. These men are living by their own rules!
Their conversation is peculiar. Are they outlaws or merely vagabonds? Are they lovers, as is implied by Duke’s suggestion that Boots get a “rich daddy”? It becomes clear that they aren’t all that skilled socially after they negotiate a free ride with a rich salesman and begin salivating over a sexy blonde (Manx) in a Corvette. Boots, though played by an over-30 Oates at the time, is still a virgin, and relying on Duke to negotiate him into some action. The travelling salesman, who isn’t above a little locker room talk at first, then has to explain to them that a woman like “that” would never give them the time of day. “You wouldn’t mate a bird with a snake.”
The two drifters whip out a blade with an order to “follow that car”. Her home hovers atop the city, and there just happens to be an empty house up for sale on the same block. From that vantage point the two men can leer into the swimming pool and watch her swim laps in the nude, nearly jumping out of their skins.
It’s a bit of Rear Window, SoCal-style, although it’s held long enough to make us in the audience squirm with a predator’s complicity. But Duke has made a promise to Boots – to get this woman to sleep with him without resorting to physical force (which “ruins” it). A woman like that is just begging for some male attention, he blusters, and in the film’s most (here it comes) problematic turn, he happens to be correct.
Young Ann, who switches from bathing suit to capris to negligees, hurls herself at her older husband, who’d much rather yap on the phone about capital gains to business partners. Duke knocks at her door while the Old Man is at the office (mistaking it for the, yuk yuk, Hitchcock residence) and presents himself as a new gardener looking for work. She buys the line, and soon he’s feeding her a sob story about a rough-and-tumble life that may actually be true.
This escalates to Boots joining a booze-filled luncheon with grilled cheese sandwiches, the hi-fi playing Boléro and plenty of bad love-triangle vibes. The implication is that maybe, just maybe, Duke and Ann could have made something together if she hadn’t married so young and he weren’t a sociopath. The film ends up where you expect it to go, but in a surprising way.
There’s more than a touch of In Cold Blood in Duke and Boots’ relationship – a machismo undercut by loneliness. Manx’s performance is a bit over-the-top, gripping a phallic candlestick one moment or wearing Duke’s belt like a necklace (or noose) the next. She was the wife of writer-director Stevens and this was her first film. She appeared in one other of his projects before killing herself in 1964 following their divorce.
Stevens’s career was a bit of a wild one. He began as a playwright, working with Orson Welles, and created two successful science fiction series for television, The Outer Limits and the 1979 version of Buck Rogers. He’s also the man behind one of the weirdest footnotes in cinema, 1966’s Incubus, the second of only four motion pictures to be shot entirely in Esperanto. (It stars William Shatner and has a lapsed copyright, so by all means feel free to watch it in its entirety.)
Low-budget films from the tail end of the studio era are always an interesting window into the generational shift just around the corner. Private Property’s vicious form of prurience may make some queasy, and is hardly the type of movie that could get made today without great backlash, but there’s definitely more going on here than mere time-capsule curiosity. When we peer out that window, we’re still gazing back at ourselves, even more than five decades later.