Starring Warren Oates and Corey Allen as a pair of sociopathic drifters, Leslie Stevens’s 1960 debut Private Property abounds in inventive low-budget filmmaking while stress-testing a pulpy, dime-store premise. Wandering Los Angeles in an ostensible daze, Boots (Oates) and Duke (Allen) decide to try a little amorality on for size, like wannabe Beat versions of Leopold and Loeb. After hijacking a ride from a hapless appliance salesman, the two take to squatting in an empty house in Beverly Hills, peeping on bored housewife next door Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx, Stevens’s then-wife).
In this two-man subculture, Duke fancies himself a weathered lothario, while Steven’s screenplay depicts Boots’s homosexuality as the inevitable byproduct of his failure to yet “make it” with a woman—a simplistic outlook that’s of its time, to say the least. Duke begins to pay unsolicited visits on Ann whenever her insurance-executive husband, Roger (Robert Ward), is away, passing himself off as a foolhardy landscape artist with a kind of nervous braggadocio. Duke and Ann occupy disparate worlds: His appearance challenges her hollow, poolside domesticity, while her money and class make it impossible for her to take him seriously, until she eventually must.
Manx’s performance scalds itself into memory one confused stare and lingering pause at a time, despite (as opposed to through) the film’s dialogue. The screenplay confines Ann to a stand-in for its totemic idea of bourgeois fiefdom; Private Property’s ill-considered tagline upon release was “And the Man Who Owned Her Didn’t Even Know She Was a ’TWITCH’!” The precise disappointments of her marriage are kept vague, as is Boots and Duke’s (presumably tortured) history together. For all the times Allen’s performance stretches plausibility, there are instances where the script doesn’t help: During a squabble over his eternal violation of Ann’s boundaries, Duke defends himself by intoning, “You don’t know what it means to a guy like me, to take a dip in a private pool!” That both Oates and Allen are far too old for their respective roles doesn’t hurt the film’s verisimilitude per se, but adds a metatextual layer of awkwardness to their characters’ juvenile mission.
From the discordant samba that kicks off the freewheeling opening title sequence, Pete Rugolo’s score plays on two different levels: The incidental music wafting from Anne’s hi-fi stereo sounds like soap-operatic window dressing, and Stevens duly overlays it on a conversation between Ann and Roger over dinner. But the music drops out when Stevens cuts to the creepazoids watching from the house next door in diegetic silence, curbing the heretofore dramatic context with a modernist inflection. In such moments, Private Property hones in its toxic trifecta with a clarity that becomes signature: Cinematographer Ted McCord makes the absolute most between the two houses’ confined locations, using jarring close-ups and ominous tracking shots to guide and spike the film’s queasy emotional trajectory.
Stevens’s dialogue is often perfunctory, akin to the patois of television that formed the backbone of his then-body of work; close your eyes and the first two acts of Private Property could suffice as a radio drama. But a drunken late-afternoon bolero shared by Duke and Ann becomes emotionally enveloping, the crown of a long and slow seduction that leaves viewers to consider whether Duke is just using her for cheap thrills, or actually obsessed with her—while Boots watches with beer in hand, sullen like a little boy. (It’s the first time both all three characters are able to hear the same music at once.) Holding down the quiet end of the film’s raging postwar American id, Oates is a marvel—pent-up like a bogeyman until Boots earns to communicate with Ann by coolly passing himself off as the appliance salesman he and Duke robbed earlier in the film, flawlessly regurgitating his small talk.
Due to the nature of Private Property’s rediscovery, aligning it to its more renowned contemporaries is inevitable. The film was released the same year as Richard Quine’s middle-class existential crisis drama Strangers When We Meet, and its uniquely Californian poolside malaise handily predates The Graduate; the simmered trauma of Duke and Boots’s inevitable breaking point suggests both the termitic stage psychodramas and European arthouse pictures making their way to American audiences in the 1950s. By the time both men are trying to kill each other in the deep end of the Carlyles’ pool, there’s no mistaking Stevens’s film for anything other than the film equivalent of a late-night, paperback-noir cautionary tale—but this lost treasure has to rank as one of the richest and fearlessly gnarly of its kind.