Private Property: Open to the Public Again 

March 9, 2016

Lately, I've found myself looking back at UCLA Film and Television Archive's 2015 Festival of Preservation, which took place one year ago this month. I must say, I made pretty good use of my pass last year, spending about 9 or 10 evenings at the Billy Wilder Theater watching over 15 features and TV movies on the big screen (the latter part of the schedule coincided with the TCM Classic Film Festival, which severely prohibited my attendance at UCLA's event).

Several promo materials for UCLA's 2015 Festival of Preservation featured this still from Private Property.

Over the past year here on the blog, I've written about some of the pictures I saw at the festival, including opening night film Men in War (1957), German TV movie Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1972), pre-Code Bachelor's Affairs (1932), and the bizarre Ouanga (1933/35/36/41?). By far one of the rarest and most astounding selections programmed was 1960's ultra indie Private Property, the directional debut of Leslie Stevens (later of The Outer Limits fame), which, astonishingly for its age, was thought lost until recently. 

 

Out of all those in attendance at Private Property's evening, only one person had seen the film previously, which made it all the more exciting to watch with a theater packed full of fresh eyes. Besides the screening, UCLA Film and Television Archive's Scott MacQueen provided some details on the picture's restoration and production background, which I'll share below.

 

 

The Movie

Two drifters, Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates), hitch a ride with a rich man, Ed (Jerome Cowan). Their goal? To follow/most likely stalk a beautiful woman, Ann (Kate Manx), who they crossed paths with earlier at a gas station. After forcing Ed to trail Ann, the pair successfully gets dropped off by her Hollywood Hills home. Seeing the house above hers is empty, they trespass and spy on Ann and her husband Roger (Robert Ward). As Duke and Boots ogle the couple - or more accurately, Ann - they plot a way in which virginal Boots can score with the gorgeous wife; after all, it appears she’s not fulfilled by her husband or their home life, which should give them a free pass to pursue her without her consent or knowledge, right?

While Roger clocks in his hours at the office each day, Duke slowly makes his way into Ann’s life, gaining her friendship, sympathy, and finally maneuvering his way closer to her so Boots can eventually step right in. Of course, not all goes as planned, and after a failed seduction attempt by Duke while Ann’s drunk and Roger’s out of town, Duke lugs her to the deserted house above her property so Boots can take over. When she eventually comes to, Ann maniacally takes off back to her home where she runs straight into a crazed Duke, setting in motion of series of tragic events that unfold as Roger races home from the airport.  

 

 

The Recovery

Scott MacQueen calls Private Property an "anomaly." He explained that when people generally think of lost movies their mind travels back to the silent era and Hollywood's early years, but this picture, released in 1960, is only 56 years old, and the original camera negative was already lost! So, you could certainly say this film is relatively young compared to other movies that have recently surfaced from decades before.

 

As the story goes, a duplicate negative of Private Property eventually turned up, but the first reel was missing. The original acetate print was already going to vinegar, but luckily, a negative was struck from that asset before it was too late. The soundtrack negative was used to source the sound, but the film's low budget stood out like a sore thumb in this regard, as obvious technical glitches, excess noise, and the like ran amok. A lot of work went into cleaning the sound up, and MacQueen claims the movie now resonates better than it did originally!

French poster for Private Property. Thankfully, the movie is no longer behind bars!

The Thoughts

Private Property stands as one of the most sexually salacious American movies I’ve seen produced under the Production Code. Naturally, the PCA swiftly condemned it, and after viewing, I’d say there’s no way it could have been edited or released with a seal of approval, unless the filmmakers wanted to turn it into a short. A very short short.

 

With that being said, it's fascinating to view the film through a cultural lens, as it was produced in 1960, at the end of the "wholesome” 50s and the very beginning of the 60s, which would bring about much change socially, sexually, racially, etc. Of course, exactly what the decade would deliver was unknown at the time, but I wonder how different this picture would have turned out if it were filmed a mere 6-7 years later, over halfway through the decade and right after the Production Code officially crumbled.

Anything having to do with "moral trespass" probably elicited instant fear in the PCA. 

There’s also a cultural familiarity surrounding the film, mainly in the quick, superficial depictions of Ann and Roger that the audience, and Duke and Boots, receive at first glance. On one hand, here you have a typical 50s housewife, a portrayal we’ve (seemingly) encountered on innumerable occasions, but on the other hand, the picture also realistically depicts an underbelly that was seldom illustrated at the time. Case in point: The couple lets their housemaid go, because there simply isn't enough work, and afterwards, there's still not an adequate amount to fill Ann's time. As a result, Ann finds little to fill her days with except the occasional domestic duty, some gardening (if she feels like it - no one would notice if she didn't), and hanging out by the pool. Add to that boredom the fact that Ann's also clearly sexually frustrated, and you can tell this isn't the happy 50s housewife we're used to.

 

On the husband front, Roger acts as the family's sole provider, another socially routine sight for the time, but it’s quite obvious that he focuses more on his work than his wife’s needs. For instance, when Roger blatantly ignores Ann’s attempts at seduction – from her suggestively lying on the floor watching TV to her flaunting a new negligee – it's not hard to feel bad for her. If she can’t make any headway by basically throwing herself at her own husband, well, there’s two young (creepy) men in the vacated residence just above who will gladly step in. Lucky for them, it looks like they followed the right woman at the right time.

 

Duke and Boots represent the opposite of Ann and Roger: drifters presumably without a family or a home. Their voyeuristic tendencies in the beginning are cold and calculating; when they scrutinize Ann and Roger's actions by the pool early on, the men create as tasteless and filthy a back story for the couple as is possible. Undoubtedly, Ann unknowingly provides ample fuel to their dirty imaginations by lounging around on a trampoline in a bikini, shimmying into her clothes, and leisurely swimming around naked, because she doesn’t think anyone can see her. Little does she know…

Ann (Kate Manx) probably never thought twice about relaxing like this in her own background. But...

Characters aside, for a film shot in five days, everything on screen appeared precise and planned (more on both points later) - I was half expecting the picture to look cheap and hastily produced, but it wasn't. In fact, many of the sequences flow incredibly fluidly; for example, in one scene the camera is planted firmly behind some foliage and a wicker fence as Duke and Ann dance while Boots furtively glares at them, the latter envious that he's relegated to basically the same obscured privilege as the viewer since Duke still keeps Ann away from him. When Duke and Ann dance/stumble into the bedroom, the camera moves so the sequence is framed through Ann’s almost-empty glass that she puts down, an image strangely distorted through the reflective material just as the characters are physically distorted by the alcohol. It's a scene that obviously commanded precision during pre-production to generate such a seamlessly disquieting effect.

 

Sticking to particularly gripping sequences, the almost-rape is particularly brutal to view, beginning with the haphazard way in which Duke carries Ann over to the bed, moves his face into the light, abruptly drops her, suddenly leaps out of the way and screams "GO!" Meanwhile, the camera jerks behind Ann, who stares up at a terrifyingly imposing Boots standing against the wall in the shadows; this rather rapid succession of images and events sufficiently solidifies the incredibly heightened tension (for the audience) and confusion (for Ann) that the episode delivers, leaving the viewer incredibly uneasy, to say the very least. 

This is a shot from the above mentioned scene, though it doesn't do a particularly great job at showcasing its severely disturbing quality.

The Background

Private Property was written and directed by Leslie Stevens and produced by Stanley Colbert. Stevens, who got his start by fetching Orson Welles' coffee at the Mercury Theatre, was a playwright who aspired to break into TV, while Colbert was a literary agent (Stevens was one of Colbert's clients at William Morris). Stevens teamed up with Colbert to form Daystar Productions, and they landed a deal at 20th Century Fox. The team enjoyed an office on the lot, where they kept busy watching movies from the vaults and generating ideas.

 

While lunching with their wives at the Stevens' home not long after they formed their partnership, Stevens claimed he felt a rather creepy vibe from an empty house on the lot just above his. He and Colbert broke in to explore and found a window that provided them with a perfect view to spy on their wives below. If you see the movie, there's a scene exactly mirroring this episode.

Ann and Duke (Corey Allen) looking quite contemplative.

Stevens asked 20th Century Fox for one week off to shoot Private Property and was granted the leave with no objection. Amazingly, six weeks from the fruition of the idea (which took Stevens only 3-4 days to write), the film premiered to a full house at the Director's Guild. Is that a record of some sort?!

 

The intent with the picture was multi-faceted. On one hand, Stevens and Colbert wanted to demonstrate that a low budget film could be union-made. On the other hand, the duo also aimed to showcase that "untraditional movies" could be produced in the traditional method with studio financing and distribution. Well, as we'll come to see, they accomplished...some of those goals.

 

Private Property was shot in five days for a mere $60,000. Ted McCord, who previously lensed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and East of Eden (1955), signed on as cinematographer after originally dismissing the idea of a five day shoot before detailed storyboards convinced him otherwise. Future three-time Oscar winner Conrad Hall, who was just beginning his career and had worked with McCord previously on East of Eden, manned the camera.

Clearly, this is one shot that had to be carefully staged beforehand.

To produce their small melodrama with a miniscule cast in a controlled environment with mere pennies to spend, Stevens and Colbert downsized everything. For instance, the location fee equaled one month's rent on the empty house, $500, which gave the team time to work with both locations before shooting commenced. From there, the duo could spare no room for coverage, so a still photographer was brought in to help storyboard the lighting design with the actors for every scene so Stevens and Colbert could tell what everything would look like before the camera rolled. Equipment consisted of the bare necessities - case in point: they even utilized a lighting system that ran off electricity from Stevens' house! Additionally, several key crew and facilities, including the AD and the film and sound labs, all deferred their fees. The team even nabbed a (presumable) discount on the casting: though Colbert wanted friend Anne Bancroft to play Ann, Stevens' wife Kate Manx laid down the law and basically cast herself in the role....or else she wouldn't let them shoot in her home!

Clipping of Kate Manx, writer/director Leslie Stevens, and producer Stanley Colbert on set.

(Not so) fun fact: On the 2nd day of filming, a fire broke out in Laurel Canyon, which resulted in a lot of smoke, record heat, and extremely inconvenient noises from helicopters flying overhead that crept into the background. As if Stevens and Colbert needed anything hindering their already tight schedule...

 

After the film was in the can, everyone in Hollywood clamored to make a deal with the two wizards who brought Private Property to life with so little. The duo asked producer Buddy Adler to guess how much the picture cost, and he (incorrectly) answered $400,000. Well, Colbert and Stevens proceeded to tell him that's how much they'd take for the distribution rights. Sold!

 

Now, all Stevens and Colbert needed was a seal from the MPPDA, which was necessary for mainstream distribution. Of course, that request was promptly denied due to the film's subject matter, and Private Property became the first Hollywood movie released without a seal in five years, the last being 1955's The Man with the Golden Arm. Despite a smaller indie circulation, the picture earned a decent profit and even traveled to locations worldwide. Even so, still only a few prints were cut, which is why Private Property became a lost film so young. Where all those prints went is anyone's guess...

Danish poster for Private Property.

How to Trespass on Private Property:

Private Property is definitely a picture that stuns and riles up the emotions, at least for me. Thankfully, the UCLA Film and Television Archive saved the movie from extinction, and hopefully, with a new print available, it can finally make the rounds that it had a (rather) hard time cracking back in 1960 and in all the years since then.

 

If you have a chance to watch the film, I definitely recommend it. In fact, I read in a press release a few weeks back that a screening would take place at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival, but as Christy comments in the Examiner, apparently that can't be confirmed yet; indeed, the title doesn't show up on the list of announced films on TCMFF's website here. So it seems Private Property may still retain a mysterious ability to evade...but hopefully not.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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