Home Video Hovel: Private Property, by David Bax

Even if you didn’t know it going in, there’d be no mistaking Leslie Stevens’ 1960 masterpiece Private Property for anything other than an independent film. There’s something about the way that it unfurls, lingering with its characters—criminals and twisted lonelyhearts—and soaking in its own sickly intoxicating atmosphere, that few if any conventional studio pictures would dare to approach. There’s also the fact that it’s just a flat out nasty piece of work that the mainstream wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Case in point: The plot. Two drifters (Warren Oates as the dim Boots and Corey Allen in a skin-crawling performance as Duke) spot a sexy housewife named Ann (Kate Manx, heartbreakingly melancholy and beguiling; it’s devastating to ponder how much more she could have given us had she not committed suicide four years later) at a gas station. They hold a traveling salesman at knifepoint and force him to follow her to her luxurious home in the hills. Taking up residence as squatters in the empty house next door, Duke comes up with a plot to cajole this woman, Ann, into bed with Boots so the latter can lose his virginity. Basically, then, the movie is the story of a sort of rape heist, most of which consists of people talking to one another and trying to ignore or overlook the danger in the air. Like I said, nasty.

Also like I said, talking. For a crime film, Private Property has very little of what one would normally describe as action. And yet every second of it is alive. The cinematography by veteran director of photography Ted McCord (East of Eden, The Damned Don’t Cry)—plus young Conrad Hall as a camera operator!—is patient and immersive. The camera, like Duke, lies in wait, only subtly and by degrees insinuating itself into the characters’ presence. The restraint in moving the camera and the long takes without cuts remove the viewer’s safety net of distance, adding to the overall weirdness. By the time a crucial scene unfolds while Duke and Ann dance to a stereo test record, you’re too immersed in the specific idiosyncrasies to question the power of the moment.

Ann spends her days in domestic idyll. The long stretches of time between her husband’s leaving for work and returning are as placid and predictable as the surface of her backyard pool. With Private Property, Stevens suggests it’s that very stillness that allows evil to seep in, overtaking her world before she’s even noticed it’s there.

Cinelicious’ Blu-ray is a new 4K restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. It’s sharp, rich and filmic black and white.

Special features include a new interview with technical consultant Alex Singer and an essay by Don Malcolm.

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