Private Property (1960)
Directed by Leslie Stevens
Leslie Stevens’s rediscovered rough diamond Private Property, shot over five days for $59,000, marks a hinge point in American film. It harks back to the noirs of the 1950s and looks forward to the more winking and psychologically probing crime films of the 1970s and 1980s broadly informed by Hitchcock, to whom Stevens pays tribute with an arch one-liner. In the predatory Southern California drifters Duke and Boots—Corey Allen and Warren Oates, respectively—it also anticipates the folie-à-deux dynamic of In Cold Blood and, more remotely, the Manson killings in 1969. They are on a mission to get the sexually inept Boots laid and put to rest Duke’s suspicions that he is gay, and in the process look to exact revenge on the insular middle class from which they have been excluded. Their target is Ann, the beautiful, lonely, and very horny wife of a sexless Beverly Hills insurance salesman whose sole preoccupation is amassing wealth.
The film also inaugurates Oates’s unique film persona: the signature blend of abandon, threat, humility, goofiness, and, perhaps most crucially, latent decency that he would project as “GTO” in Two-Lane Blacktop, Lyle Gorch in The Wild Bunch, Bennie in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Sergeant Hulka in Stripes, and other memorable roles. Allen gets the lion’s share of the screen time, and is engagingly over-the-top with a faux Brando portrayal of a seductive sociopath who will say anything to get the drop on a mark. But it’s Oates who furnishes the movie’s singular moments of male vulnerability, when he recites to Ann with heartbreaking awkwardness the cover story Duke has dictated to him—wistfully casting himself as “the guy who pulls the strings”—and compassion, when he declines to rape a drunkenly inert Ann after Duke has set her up for him, and then protects her from Duke.
Private Property explores a range of Hitchcockian issues, including female desire, sexual ambiguity, voyeurism, and the Madonna/whore syndrome. But if the movie has an overarching theme, it is class antagonism and the potentially incendiary tension between the privileged and the marginalized, which remains a soberly relevant phenomenon. The film does have its burlesque extravagances, such as Duke’s Eddie Haskell-esque conning technique and Bolero-scored conquest of Ann, and her flagrant yet purportedly inadvertent libidinousness. Overall, though, this valuable reclamation is a powerful, tense, and surprisingly cohesive and tightly scripted essay about America on the cusp of the 1960s. And it has Warren Oates. Jonathan Stevenson (July 1-7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Oates series; showtimes daily)