“The scalding story of a moral trespass!” That is certainly an intriguing tagline on a movie poster. And in April 1960, titillated audiences could check out for themselves what is was all about by buying a ticket to Private Property, the directorial debut of Leslie Stevens, a one time protégé of Orson Welles and playwright.
The black and white film starts as two sleazoid drifters follow a woman in a white Corvette from Malibu to her home in the Hollywood hills. Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates) then break into the vacant house next door. From there, they can spy on her. It doesn’t take long to figure out that sexy blonde Ann (Kate Manx, Lesley Stevens’ wife at the time) is a lonely and sexually frustrated housewife trapped in a sexless marriage (even her new negligee does nothing for the hard-working husband!), unconsciously longing for something, anything, to reignite her comfortably dull life. Her daily routine seems limited to swimming in the nude, sunning herself by the pool in her white bikini, leisurely tending her plants and enjoying the occasional evening cocktail to numb the emptiness of her existence.
Under the pretense of being a landscape artist, Duke offers his services and maneuvers to gain Ann’s confidence, possibly more, with his sociopathic skills…His ulterior motive? To seduce her so that Boots, most certainly a closeted gay, can have a woman for the first time! What began as a twisted voyeuristic game for the two men turns into an increasingly suffocating huis-clos, ripped with undercurrents of quasi-hypnotic perversion and unfulfilled sexual fantasies (at one point Ann is seen squeezing a man’s belt around her neck!)….
Under the glistening haze of a California summer, something’s got to give. And it will. With a crescendo towards an unexpected nightmarish climax that leaves a bitter aftertaste, as if the orgasmic relief of a possible happy-end was in fact the brutal fall into the nothingness of morality…
Private Property was shot in ten days for a mere $60.000 at Stevens’ house with a killer view, high above the Sunset Strip, off Miller Drive in what is now West Hollywood. The director’s agent initially wanted Ann Bancroft to play Ann, but Kate said she would refuse to allow filming at home if she did not get the part. Stevens’ agent thought Ben Gazzara would be ideal to play Duke but the actor, just off Anatomy of a murder, turned down the part arguing he did not want to be typecast as a heavy. Corey Allen, previously seen in Rebel without a Cause and The Night of the Hunter, fit the bill as did a then unknown Warren Oates who would later achieved cult status with raw performances in Sam Peckimpah’s The Wild Bunch and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia …
But in June, barely two months after its release, the movie would be eclipsed by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and disappear from the screens in America and was soon forgotten, except in Europe where it gained some following. But as film noir expert Don Malcolm remarked, “Private Property is a fascinating film poised at the end of classic film noir and at the beginning of a new sexual frankness in American movies. Its notoriety came and went in a heartbeat, but viewing it today, we can see how prophetic it was.”
Indeed it paved the way for some other seminal movies in a similar genre. Like the 1964 Lady in a cage directed by Walter Grauman, where a scarily unhinged James Caan in his first movie role terrorizes Olivia de Havilland stuck in the elevator inside her house. And of course Sam Peckimpah’ Straw Dogs and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, both released in 1971. Or, more recently, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games …
In 1962, Kate Manx would make a second movie directed by her husband, Heroe’s Island with James Mason, before divorcing him a year later. She killed herself in 1964, overdosing on sleeping pills at age 34. Leslie Stevens then concentrated on television, creating and producing successful shows, most notably The Outer Limits….His last feature was the 1966 horror flick Incubus with William Shatner, spoken entirely in Esperanto!
Private Property is now available in a superb Blu-ray & DVD edition, courtesy of bold indie distributor Cinelicious Pics (whose niche catalog offers other rarities like Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness, and the 5 and half hour Indian cult epic Gangs of Wasseypur by Anurag Kashyap)…. The glorious 4K restoration was made possible from previously lost film elements rediscovered and preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive under the supervision of Paul Korver.
An absolute must see for any cinephile on the lookout for a rare gem.