December 5, 2013
This Property Is Condemned – US, 1966
As I was watching Sydney Pollack’s 1966 drama, This Property Is Condemned, a thought popped into my head: This is a film that could be remade. It took me a moment to remember that it had already been – indirectly, of course. The film is a welcome reminder that history has a way of repeating itself, that the struggles of present-day working Americans are similar to those of people who came before. There have always been companies that downsized and there have always been those who jobs depended of their telling other people that they no longer have theirs. A few years ago, it was George Clooney delivering the somber news in Alexander Payne’s excellent film Up in the Air. Here, it is Robert Redford as Owen Legate, a railway employee who arrives in a small town in Mississippi that is suffering mightily from the effects of the Great Depression. His presence will only add to its misery. It is telling, however, that his first request is to see all of the company’s employee files, starting with those that have families. This is a man with a heart in a rather heartless job.
Films like this one often have a fairly standard arc: The stranger is only in town for a short, he meets a woman, and they fall in love in warp speed. In the meantime, the formula calls for him to perform his official duties, make enemies in the process, and learn to hate his line of work. This Property Is Condemned is different in this last regard, but only because Adam has already come to loathe his occupation. Also separating this from other films of its kind is the reason behind the town’s animosity toward Adam. Do they hate him for firing them or for taking away “their main attraction”?
The film was inspired by a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, and many aspects of the film have obviously been inspired by the theater. There are characters that speak in long soliloquies and others that make their presence known through their silence. One in particular gives new meaning to the phrase “the silent and deadly type.” In addition, towards the beginning of the film, we’re treated to what feels like thirty minutes of real time. We follow Redford’s character as he meets young Willie Starr (Mary Badham), and enters the lives of her, her mother (Kate Reid), and her big sister, Alva, who all the men seem to want but few actually respect. We watch as Adam observes from afar the forced merriment taking place on the ground level below, and we see what he sees: that Alva’s mother has Alva essentially prostituting herself. One male visitor even starts a conversation by insinuating that he has received her mother’s permission to see her quite often, and it’s clear he doesn’t mean for their meeting to be just a gradual courtship.
It is not going to give too much away to say that Alva is a tempest of contradictions. She has wonderful fantasies of breaking free and seeing the world, all the while refusing to take the steps that would finally get her out of a community that is suffocating her. She seems to enjoy the attention that her looks and reputation have afforded her, yet dislikes the constant pressure and occasional danger that having too many fans can bring. And she seems especially torn when it comes to one particular man named J.J. (Charles Bronson). Her first impulse is to flee from him. However, every time the two of them find themselves face to face, she freezes momentarily, as if she is momentarily stunned by a deadly combination of fear and attraction. That J.J. is her mother’s boyfriend gives their relationship a dimension that Freud would have had a field day analyzing.
The tale of Alva and Adam’s ill-fated love is told in flashbacks and bookended by a somewhat awkward narrative involving Willie’s telling a local boy about the time when her home was not in such a dilapidated state, when it was filled with dancing, drinking, and its fair share of nefarious characters. I’m not sure why the boy would want to listen to this, and the opening scene does not give the audience much of a reason to either. However, the technique enables the film to return to Willie’s narrative toward the end and for her to wrap up the story for the audience. Could it have been done more effectively? Without a doubt. However, the bookends are consistent with the theatrical feel of the film, and one can easily imagine a theatrical production in which Willie begins her story and the curtain slowly opens on her once lively home.
There is another reason that Up in the Air is worth mentioning in a review of this film, and it relates to the perception that some people have of the two films’ male leads. Like Clooney, Redford is also an actor who does not always get the credit he so richly deserves. In many of his films, he has played characters with calm demeanors and for the most part, he tends to underplay moments that other actors might have played much more emotionally. His characters are also often a model of decency, hard work, and stoicism, and he plays these parts exceptionally well. Therefore, it is easy for people to get the impression that is just playing himself, which is unfortunate, for his work in this film, as well as his work in other films, is genuinely impressive. Moreover, his performances, like those of Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Fonda, Mary Pickford, and so many other cinematic titans, are the kind that time and repeat viewings have no impact on. If anything, the passage of time has only made them more impressive.
This Property Is Condemned is an occasionally daring film that looks at a time that tested even the most noble of souls. It is skillfully helmed, and thanks to its source material and screenwriters Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Coe, and Edith Summer, its characters seem authentic, even if they are bit long-winded at times. The film is hampered somewhat by a soundtrack that seems slightly off, a back lot that is hardly believable as New Orleans, and a time-frame that seems a bit short for everything we see to be able to transpire in, yet it overcomes these faults by delivering a moving story about characters we come to root for and care for. And of course it has Natalie Wood giving what amounts to an acting clinic, and that is more than enough for me. (on DVD)