Private Property is a suspense film directed by Leslie Stevens on a shoe-string budget and released in 1960. The film is an early example of an erotic thriller and, needless to say, encountered severe criticism when it was shown -- the Catholic League of Decency condemned the movie and the Motion Picture Association denied the film its certification, a dubious honor last accorded to the Sinatra heroin and sex movie, Man with the Golden Arm. The picture is nasty enough to deserve its notoriety. For many years, Private Property was thought to be lost -- it was a minor success d'estime in Europe, but almost unseen in the United States. A couple years ago, a print was discovered and the picture has been carefully restored by the film school at UCLA.
Leslie Stevens worked with Orson Welles and, later, helmed the TV series The Outer Limits. He is an effective director with a strong visual flare and works ingeniously within a micro-budget. (The movie stars his wife, Kate Manx, and was shot at his home, apparently in the Santa Monica mountains above Sunset Boulevard -- the production schedule was 5 days and the budget was $60,000.) In the opening shot, two drifters emerge through an ugly cleft in the shoreline, seemingly washed up on the shore of the Pacific Ocean -- the Pacific Ocean highway is misty and the film's excellent black and white camerawork, discloses an ugly side of California that seems revelatory: the beach and highway along the surf and the little gas station where the film's action commences all are swathed in dirty haze, cold-looking, damp, a realm of perpetual twilight. The drifters intimidate the gas station attendant into giving them cigarettes and bottles of orange pop. Then, they hitch a ride with smug businessman, pursuing a nice-looking blonde in her corvette -- when the businessman balks in the pursuit, the dominant thug (played by Corey Allen) threatens to eviscerate him. The businessman has earned the boys' wrath by suggesting that the blonde is out of their league -- he argues that nature requires that the separate classes be kept distinct: "you don't breed snakes with birds." The thugs track the woman to her home, a hillside retreat with cyclone fences around a lush garden in which there is a swimming pool -- it's the kind of place that David Hockney painted in some of his more famous pictures. As it happens, there is a house that is empty adjacent to the heroine's home and the two bad guys take up residence there, spying on her, and, ultimately, inflicting themselves upon the woman. It's this aspect of the film, the covert voyeurism of the drifters' surveillance of the housewife, that is redolent of the dank exploitation in present-day erotic thrillers. The housewife is played by an actress named Kate Manx. She seemed immediately familiar to me as soon as I saw her in the film. Manx is blonde, with a pointy bra and shapely hips -- she embodies sexual frustration in a way that is explicit, intensely charged, and, perhaps, over the top. Perpetually playing with phallic-shaped objects, she writhes on the deck by her pool, kicking her spread legs into the air. In one scene, she lolls on the floor watching television with her thighs spread and her hips cocked into a lascivious posture. (Manx had small breasts for a Hollywood starlet, but seems to have understood that her derriere and thighs were her prime assets -- she twists into contorted poses that show off this aspect of her body to advantage.) Manx is fantastically needy, desperate for attention, and has a face so beautiful as to seem like a work of pop art -- her blonde hair makes a halo around her huge and pleading eyes. This is all more or less for naught because she is ignored by her stolid and staid husband, some kind of a suited businessman, and the two psychos watching her are, apparently, homosexual. The lead thug repeatedly tells his disciple (played by a very young Warren Oates) that the younger man is "saving himself for his daddy." This taunting causes Oates' character to demand that the older man, Duke, arrange for his rape of the housewife -- in this way, Duke will show his affection to Boots (Oates' character) and, also, allow his protégée to prove that he is not homosexual. To this end, Duke insinuates himself into the woman's confidence, pretending to be a gardener. Predictably, the sexually frustrated housewife is intrigued by the handsome drifter -- he rakes her lawn shirtless -- and invites both thugs into her home. The film is only 79 minutes long and the last third of the picture involves a nightmarish party at the woman's house in which the housewife dances with Duke who gets her drunk and, then, encourages Boots to rape her. The extended take showing Duke and the housewife dancing is shot claustrophobically, too close to the action, and the lush garden foliage interferes, forming a black tangled fringe above the image -- it's a menacing shot that goes on and on and you can't deny both the erotic charge of the image and the sense of impending doom; the two dance to some kind of bargain-basement Bolero while Boots looks on lasciviously. The whole thing is profoundly perverse and, even, frightening -- when Duke first knocks on the woman's door, he announces that he is looking for the "Hitchcock" residence. Other sequences suggest Michael Haneke's nightmarish Funny Games. Unfortunately, the film is all set-up with no place to go. The ending is totally predictable -- at the midway point in the movie, the audience can figure out what will happen. But the film is stylish and, even, inspiring in its tawdry way -- it demonstrates what can be done with some imagination, an actress of startling and troubled beauty (Manx killed herself in 1964 a couple years later after Stevens divorced her), and a good cameraman working with no real budget at all. You too can make a movie, it seems, in your backyard.