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Moral Degenerates: Rediscovering Leslie Stevens’ Private Property (1960)

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The postwar years were a magical time for American cinema, particularly for fans of crime films and psychological thrillers. While some of the more influential film noir titles are fortunately still avidly celebrated — such as Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Out of the Past (1947), and Sunset Boulevard (1950) — I have an endless fascination with quite a few of the lesser known, neglected entries, some of which are still not released on home video. I’m particularly drawn to those that deal with the dark underbelly of the postwar economic boom and explore themes of repression, femininity, sexual perversion, economic frustration that leads to violence, and suburban isolation; all of these are central to Private Property (1960), director Leslie Stevens’ recently unearthed thriller.

Essentially lost for years, Private Property has been restored by Cinelicious Pics, who are also responsible for recent restorations (and accompanying theatrical or VOD screenings) of films like animated Japanese erotica classic Belladonna of Sadness (1973), the Jane Birkin and Agnès Varda collaborations Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) and Kung Fu Master! (1988), as well as more recent arthouse fare like Indian crime epic Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and the US-made psychological thriller Butter on the Latch (2013). For anyone in the Los Angeles area, Cinelicious Pics will present the film on July 7 at the Aero Theater as part of a Warren Oates retrospective.

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Two drifters, Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates), spot a beautiful woman (Kate Manx) at a gas station and hitch a ride to follow her to her comfortable home in the suburbs. The house next to hers just happens to be empty, so they hole up there and spy on her for a few days, learning that her name is Ann and she’s married to an insurance salesman (Roger Carlyle); the much more assertive Duke has promised Boots that this time it will be his turn to have a woman. Pretending to be a down-on-his-luck gardner, Duke cons his way into Ann’s home — and her swimming pool — by taking advantage of Ann’s obvious loneliness and sexual frustration, but tensions soon come to a head, resulting in explosive violence.

Though there isn’t a lot in the way of shocking sex or violence by contemporary standards, Private Property was not given a passing grade by the Production Code thanks to its use of homosexuality, voyeurism, and unsatisfied female desire. As a result, the film’s US theatrical release was stunted, though it apparently had a following in Europe before it languished in obscurity for decades. It manages to be effectively seedy without relying on explicit sex or gore and burrows its way under the skin right out of the gate, but I can certainly understand the Production Code’s outrage; Boots is revealed to be pretty overtly homosexual, while Duke comments that anyone who would be able to take their hands off of Ann (meaning her husband) is a moral degenerate. The film is less clear about whether or not Duke also struggles with the weight of repressed homoerotic desire, though it often seems that his seduction of Ann, which he does not consummate despite the opportunity to do so, is a form of sublimation for his lust for Boots. There’s also a scene with Ann that hints at autoerotic asphyxiation when she lays in bed, alone, pale and sweating, and tightens Duke’s belt around her neck. 

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Though the majority of the film focuses on scenes of Ann sunbathing by the pool or Duke and Boots watching her through a window from the house next door, Stevens rapidly establishes tension, which quickly turns to dread as it becomes likely that sexual violence will erupt at any moment. This is also a surprisingly beautiful film, with nearly every shot offering up some artistic, yet claustrophobic framing devices that were likely inspired by Orson Welles, Stevens’ former mentor. Clearly riding on the tail end of film noir — general consensus is that Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) is the last in the official classic film noir cycle — Private Property is certainly an outlier, but bears a connection to a number of other similarly unpleasant films. There are a number of film noir titles that feature a tense relationship between two men with erotic undertones, namely Detour (1945) and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), while Duke in particular evokes the manipulative, violent, and psychopathic male characters that pepper film noir. Robert Ryan was often cast as this type in films like Act of Violence (1948) and William Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947); Dmytryk would explore the character type even more controversially in The Sniper (1952), about a troubled young man who murders women.

But perhaps the closest parallel to Private Property can be found in Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951) from nearly a decade earlier, starring Van Heflin as a psychopathic police officer, Webb, who responds to a lonely housewife’s (Evelyn Keyes) call about an intruder. Neglected by her frequently absent husband, she allows Webb to continue checking on her and a relationship develops. He is determined to get rid of her husband and covets not only the man’s wife, but his home and material possessions. One of the nastiest films of the decade, this indictment of American culture in the ‘50s is bleak and perverse. Like Private Property, the film is sunny and brightly lit. Aside from a few scenes shot at night, the cinematography in both serves to focus the sense of claustrophobia, paranoia, and voyeurism. Like Duke, Webb is barely an anti-hero, irredeemable, hates his blue collar background, and is obsessed with class divisions.

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Corey Allen (Rebel Without a Cause, Sweet Bird of Youth) had a prolific career as a director working primarily in television, but, at least based on his performance here, was never really given his due as an actor, because he’s fantastic. I can’t quite say that he carries the film though, because the great Peckinpah regular Warren Oates is a fitting foil. Passive, almost innocent in his simplicity, there is a sense that his character Boots both eggs on Duke and also restrains him, though not even Boots is aware of what Duke is capable of when he’s pushed too far. Both men are balanced by a breathtaking performance from the under-appreciated Kate Manx, director Stevens’ former wife.

There are some strange similarities between Private Property and the production of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) — a film noir about neighbors who become lovers, though the woman suspects she’s become involved with a serial killer — as the star of that film, noir regular Gloria Grahame, was also Ray’s wife. The two were in the middle of a messy divorce that no doubt informs the film, caused by Grahame’s affair with Ray’s teenage son (!); tensions were apparently so high that Ray slept on In a Lonely Place’s apartment set. Private Property, meanwhile, was filmed in Stevens’ and Manx’s actual home. The plot about an unsatisfied, lonely wife who desperately wants to be loved by her distracted (possibly homosexual) husband, must have had some uncomfortable parallels. Not too long after the completion of Private Property, Stevens and Manx separated and divorced. It is believed that this resulted in her suicide in 1964.

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In a certain sense, Private Property lives somewhere between the bleak, erotically charged film noir titles of the ‘50s like those I’ve mentioned above, and later arthouse thrillers about the violent shadow of postwar excess — many of which feature swimming pools and vacation locales near the water as important central pieces — such as the same year’s Plein soleil (1960), The Swimmer (1968), and La piscine (1969). It’s amazing to me that quiet masterpieces like Private Property are still waiting around to be discovered, but fortunately Cinelicious Pics has brought the film’s triumphs to light and both Blu-ray and VOD releases are set for late summer.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

2 comments

  1. James Elliot Singer

    Don Malcolm also did an excellent piece at Brightlightsfilm four years ago about this movie.

    The adult industry lifted the plot for Talk Dirty To Me with John Leslie and Richard Pacheco in the early 80s, considered a classic porn film by some reviewers.

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