Made just on the cusp of the broadening of censorship rules in Hollywood, Private Property was probably too much, too soon. Unable to secure an MPAA seal of approval, the movie never opened wide, and quickly disappeared. This is a shame because Private Property is a brimming pot of noir nastiness, a near classic in a genre that's too often associated with gangsters and organized criminality, but at its heart is really about human frailty, obsession, and madness.
Corey Allen and Warren Oates star as Duke and Boots, a pair of drifters who wander up from the beach looking for their next place to wander. Duke casually asks a gas station attendant if they have orange soda, and just as casually tells him to go get them some, before they have to break open the cash register and get the money for themselves. The pair are all restless, criminal energy. That night, after having successfully infiltrated a semi-abandoned home, Duke asks Boots: "Do you want to eat in or out? Do we swindle a restaurant, or rob a supermarket?"
They picked that house because it was within spying distance of the blonde in the corvette. They followed her from the gas station, having essentially commandeered a car and driver, getting into his car with friendly stories and confidence, and staying in with drawn knives and threats. Once up in the hills where the blonde lives, the two hatch a plan. Boots has apparently never made it with a lady, in his words, and so Duke is going to set him up. And Boots wants Ann, the blonde.
Their plan is as gross as it sounds, and as the film moves on it gets more and more depraved. Duke poses as a landscaper looking for work. Ann, whom the pair discovers as they spy on her and her husband is over-pampered and well-undersexed, isn't as cautious as she should be about letting a stranger into her yard.
Secret passion is the engine that runs Private Property's story. Ann doesn't not resent her husband (when he's around she dotes on him) but she does resent that all her efforts to get him interested in her aren't working. Played by Kate Manx, she's got an animal carnality that's neither vulgar nor wanton - she'd loved to spend all her sexual energy on her husband, if he'd only look at her. Instead, she spends most of the day outside apparently posing for no-one to see... except the two drifters watching from the house above. They have their own deep desires - Duke loves the manipulation, though he grows to despise the manipulated. Boots, played by Oates as a kind of overgrown kid who’s way happier talking about seduction than trying it, isn't quite sure what he wants, and needs someone else to make the decision for him.
Private Property was made for purportedly a tiny budget - most of it was shot in director Leslie Steven's own home. Sometimes the low budget is obvious - there are a couple of insert shots that are clearly still photographs. That it for the most part looks as good as any black and white made in the '60s is thanks to the ace camera department. Ted McCord was the cinematographer, an old pro who'd been working since the 20s and had lensed The Treasure of Sierra Madre and East of Eden. He was brought on board by protégé and friend of Stevens', Conrad Hall, who was camera operator and would go on to be one of the great cinematographers of his time, and who would work with Stevens when he went on to create The Outer Limits on TV.
As a cultural artifact, Private Property is interesting because it can right at the time that the grip of censorship was loosening on American cinema, but before creators had been released from it entirely (to the extent they ever are). It's not hard to see why it might not have gotten the approval needed to take it wide: there's a tinge of weirdness to many of the scenes. When Duke goes for a swim in Ann's pool (to cool off from doing the yardwork she hired him for) he leaves his belt on the side. When she finds it, she wraps it around her neck, and goes to bed. The entire plot - one man seducing a woman and then at the last minute swapping in his partner to consummate the seduction - was probably more than could be allowed. Beyond the details, there's an air of seediness to the whole show, much due to the ingratiating but off-kilter performance of Corey Allen. Probably thanks to budget limitations, there’s a leanness, and a tautness to Private Property. At 80-minutes long, there’s no time for any flabbiness, any digressions. It’s about a pair of mean men with a mean plan, and the woman who might secretly want them to go through with it.
Private Property was a lost film, in that the film elements for performing a restoration were only recently recovered. The print on the Blu-ray looks fantastic - better than a minor and forgotten film from 1960 has any right looking. Included with the Blu-ray is an informative essay by noir expert Don Malcolm and an 18 minute video interview with Alexander Ringer, a still photographer who worked on the film and was friends with Leslie Stevens, reminiscing on the film.