Private Property: Lesley Stevens’ Low Budget Indie Restored

I finally caught up with Private Property, an indie from 1960 that was considered lost for many years, and recently restored by the UCLA Film Archives and rereleased theatrically

The film shown on TCM in January 2017 in an evening celebrating the work of Warren Oates, a talented actor mostly known for playing character roles in Sam Peckinpah’s movies.

Private Property features Oates’ first leading part in a year in which he also made impression in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (also shown on TCM that night).

This low-budget film, which cost about $50,000, and runs only 73 minutes, is a black and white psychological thriller directed by Lesley Stevens.

At the time, the film was controversial due to a rather explicit seduction scene of a married woman and senseless violent crime.  This, of course, limited its theatrical opportunities in the U.S., but it has played more successfully in Europe, recouping its budget and even making some profit.

Seen from today’s perspective, the plot is minimal and what’s really striking is the sustained tensions—of various kinds–among the three characters, the suspenseful ambience, the poignant black and white cinematography, by Ted McCord, which utilizes some of the vocabulary of film noir.

Two drifting outcasts, Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates) are introduced hitchhiking on the Pacific Highway, making their way to a lush Beverly Hills mansion.

At first, they come across as types. Duke is more handsome, verbal, slick, but also volatile and temperamental.  Boots is less bright, slow, quiet, but more dangerous—he seems more of a follower than leader.

They spot an attractive blond woman at a gas station, and we later learn that she is Ann (played by Kate Manx, Leslie Stevens’ then wife), a lonely housewife, married to a businessman who travels most of the time.

Settling into a neighboring vacant house, the duo begins to watch closely the femme as she moves around the house and its outdoors (there is a good use of a swimming pool), changing clothes, coming and going.

For a reel or so, the aptly titled Private Property engages as an exercise in voyeurism, conducted both by the two creepy men, and by implication by us the viewers.

Duke finally pulls courage and introduces himself to Ann, who reacts in a cautious but friendly way.  Slowly, he begins to seduce the presumably happily married wife, and it’s the acts of seduction that make up for the most compelling and disturbing scenes as they are based on his working-class charisma, simple verbal exchanges, intimate glances and so on.

The husband appears only in few scenes, though he plays a bigger art in the film’s conclusion.  It gradually becomes clear that the marriage has significant cracks and that beyond the seemingly tranquil bourgeois surface there are issues of lack of intimacy, meaningful communication, inevitable loneliness, and perhaps even sexual dissatisfaction, all of which explains why Ann is attracted to Duke, both emotionally and then physically.

It is therefore too bad that the last scene is generic in its conventional resolution of the crimes committed and the characters’ fate, as what precedes the final moments is so engaging and unsettling.