Leslie Stevens' Private Property (1960)
Noir's Edge of Wetness
Long thought lost, Stevens' grim exposé of gender roles and sexual psychopathy may be the missing link in noir's transition to the sixties.
Like fellow late-phase noir auteur Paul Wendkos, writer-director-producer Leslie Stevens was an acolyte of Orson Welles — and no career path could be more dangerously vertiginous than one that emulated film's most notorious outcast. Both men would eventually succumb to the studio system that they so flamboyantly spurned in their early, impetuous days, but before they were torn from their Wellesian womb they each produced a singular film with sinuous overtones of overripe, forbidden fruit.
Of the two, however, Stevens was the more extreme — pushing beyond the Oedipal indirections that Wendkos explored in The Burglar (1957, filmed in 1955), an incendiary, overheated caper film starring Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield, based on the David Goodis novel of the same name. More extreme, in that Stevens plunged head-on into the hidden injuries of gender relations in postwar America, at a time when paternalism was reaching its giddy peak — and more original, in that Stevens aspired to the same level of control over his production that Welles had always sought.
* * *
(1960, filmed in 1959) Stevens' contribution to the noir nether regions that began to sprout like unwelcome weeds in the late '50s — when films were still constrained from even a rudimentary display of sexual explicitness — has long been considered a lost film. Its recent discovery, languishing in plain sight at a well-known university film archive, is a deliciously wanton metaphor for the type of secrets and taboos that were on the cusp of being exploded out into the open as the twentieth century's most tumultuous decade — the sixties — was being birthed. Fifty years after its disappearance, however, its audience may be too jaded to appreciate its prescience.
"There's always been a connection between writing and money in my head, ever since I was ten and my father paid me a penny a line for learning Shakespeare."
— Leslie Stevens, quoted in "The Happy Hack," Time, 9/28/1959
Blond, cherubic, charming, and arrogant, Leslie Clark Stevens III was the wayward son of one of America's most accomplished military diplomats, Leslie Clark Stevens, Jr., who would rise to the rank of Vice-Admiral in the United States Navy and become envoy to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.
In 1939, at the age of 15, Stevens entered and won a playwriting contest sponsored by Welles' Mercury Theatre (though it's clear that Welles himself was not actively involved in the selection process). The title of young Stevens' play was prophetic: Mechanical Rat.
Upon being informed of his victory, he committed his first act of grandiose rebellion by leaving Annapolis by train and traveling to New York, where he attempted to join Welles and his troupe. Norman Lloyd recalls the incident:
"A pudgy blond boy, barely in his teens, whose dimples became strangely aggressive when he smiled, wanted to become Orson's galley slave. Several of us warned him that Welles was not so much a man as he was a volcano, but the boy seemed unperturbed.
He'd picked a bad day to be received by the master of the universe, however: it seems that Orson was in an especially foul mood over some slight, real or imagined. When the child whose chubby cheeks seemed to mirror Orson's tried to speak, he was set upon with the full force of Wellesian wrath. 'I need no valet to bugger — get this boy out of my sight!' roared Orson.
We'd expected the boy to be crushed, but he merely stepped back several paces, appraised Welles with apple-cheeked detachment, and said simply: 'You are overacting, Mr. Welles.'"
According to Lloyd, Welles then roared with laughter and decided that the boy would make a good valet after all. Sources differ as to exactly how long Stevens remained with the Mercury Theatre, but such a highly placed youngster was not allowed to remain footloose for long. The battle between father and son had already been cast, however, and its tracings can be found in much of Stevens' creative work to follow, including Private Property.
Stevens would toe the line through World War II, serving in the Air Force, benefiting from his father's influence to enter into the rarefied realm of military intelligence. Once the war ended, however, he quickly renounced this career path and enrolled in the Yale School of Drama: Welles continued to cast a longer shadow than his father. * * *
Private Property opens — appropriately — with a cheat. Long-time residents of southern California will recognize "The Rock" — a seaside outcropping at the outer limits of Malibu separated from the rest of the Santa Monica Mountains by the dynamiting efforts of early 20th-century road builders who blasted it into something close to its current shape in order to put in a stretch of California's iconic Highway 1.
From the low sands in the foreground, two scraggly drifters emerge and cross the highway. They are Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates). We will never be sure if these are their actual names. They walk into a roadside gas station — an establishment that, in fact, never existed within miles of the location suggested by this stealthy, initial edit. (Stevens' collaborator and producer, Stanley Colbert, once told a reviewer that this was an inside joke amongst the production crew, signifying from the start that all things are simply not as they seem.)
It's quickly established that the two are shifty — Duke quickly shakes down the gas station owner for a series of "free" items. As they loll about guzzling their purloined pop, we discover that their "friendship" has evolved more than a bit queasily around a variation of Beatnik grifterhood. It's soon clear that their relationship is an unequal one: in a telling twist upon George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, the well-spoken one (Duke) is the budding monster, a sexual psychopath with an all-too-morbid understanding of feminine sexual behavior. Boots, who is characterized by Duke as an unthinking, ticking time bomb of a killing machine, is in reality a slightly slow-witted sexual innocent being "groomed" by Duke for his "coming out" moment.
And an ultra-hot prospect for that moment arrives in the shapely form of Ann (Kate Manx, at this time also Mrs. Leslie Stevens). As she asks the gas station for directions, Boots and Duke size her up with something more than lecherous intent. They are simultaneously chatting up a traveling appliance salesman, Ed Hogate (Jerome Cowan), who's stopped to gas up. A classic hail-fellow well-met type, Ed is generous with his business card and a bit too proud of his limited edition roadster; Duke cannily cajoles him to give the drifter duo a lift to the Sunset Strip some twelve miles away.
Thus begins the long, cat-and-mouse stalking of Ann, who is married to Roger, an ambitious insurance salesman — one of America's most feverish growth industries during its post-WWII boom years. The appliance salesman, attuned to America's unspoken class structure, takes one look at Ann and assesses the duo's chances of scoring with her at exactly zero. "These things are broken down into groups," he says, revealing both acceptance and regret. "You wouldn't mate a bird with a snake. It's the same thing here — it just can't happen."
* * *
Ed's pronouncement stirs a slow, cold rage in Duke, and when he tries to part company with the two prior to completing their "tail job," he comes up against a flashpoint moment — rendered with an extreme low-angled shot that emphasizes the true extent of the menace that he'll face if he doesn't acquiesce. (Watching Corey Allen here, best known to contemporary audiences for his portrayal of James Dean's rival in Rebel Without a Cause
, is a chilling premonition of the remote control killers who would soon populate movie screens and real life as the sixties played itself out into the spasmodic underside of the "peace and love" generation.) Ed quickly grasps that there's a new "group" that he's not yet accounted for in his social taxonomy, one that's more than willing to make a chance encounter into an experience hazardous to his health: he drives the psychopathic pair up into the Hollywood hills so that they can pursue their game.
"As a playwright, I achieved the rank of hotel night clerk at 22, night ward attendant at a psychiatric hospital at 25, a magazine copy boy at 28."
— Leslie Stevens, quoted in "The Happy Hack," Time, September 28, 1959
While his father spent his years in Russia as a special attaché, Stevens graduated from Yale and moved to New York, spending the better part of a decade establishing himself — but never losing the dream of a Wellesian notoriety.
His fortunes began to change when he discovered Manx (the former Kathrynne Mylroie), a leggy, statuesque showgirl type savvy enough to marry and divorce Anthony Brady Farrell, the owner of the Mark Hellinger Theater. The couple would marry as Stevens' sex comedy, The Marriage-Go-Round
(which launched the career of Julie Newmar, a woman who bore more than a passing "structural" resemblance to Kate Manx), turned into a massive hit on Broadway in the fall of 1958.
Stevens' agent, Stanley Colbert, parlayed this success into a motion picture contract at Fox, and the swashbuckling duo set up shop in Hollywood, dreaming up a myriad of projects in a grandiose plan to seize control (or, at least, a large, juicy slice) of Tinseltown — both vertically (motion pictures) and horizontally (television). Private Property, however, would prove to be the duo's only actual collaboration.
When Stevens and Manx moved into their Hollywood hills home — it is their house where the major action of Private Property takes place — the residence next door was vacant. Colbert recalled that the owners wanted "an exorbitant sum" for the property: it had languished on the market for months, a rare occurrence in the usually fast-paced world of Southern California real estate.
It triggered a story idea that had been forming in Stevens' mind ever since he'd seen an edgy B-noir entitled Without Warning!
(1952), a police procedural with a nasty twist: the quarry being pursued (Adam Williams) is a serial killer. Stevens would lift the villain's ploy to gain access to his victims for the approach that Duke takes to begin his twisted wooing of Ann: both pose as landscape gardeners.
Colbert, galvanized by the emerging edginess in Stevens' tale, set out to find the right actors to play the two odd-couple Beatnik thugs. Warren Oates, then a thirtyish actor whose appearances in TV westerns had demonstrated a notable skill in combining passivity and menace, was his first and only choice for Boots. Initial auditions failed to turn up anyone suitable for Duke, however.
"It was the pivotal role," Colbert later acknowledged. "The actor must project enough appeal to keep the audience genuinely interested in whether or not he's going to succeed, even as they know that the underlying motives for his actions are unsavory at best." Stevens sent the script to Ben Gazzara, but the emerging star had just played two screen villains — in The Strange One and Anatomy of a Murder — and was leery of being typecast. (The miniscule paycheck didn't help, either.)
Then Stevens remembered another B-noir he'd seen: The Big Caper
(1957), a mashed-up rehash of The Killing
, which featured a more overtly dysfunctional criminal gang but lacked the propulsion of Stanley Kubrick's breakout film. He was struck by the performance of Corey Allen, however; as Roy, the gang leader Flood's psychotic henchman, the young actor who'd been James Dean's adversary in Rebel Without a Cause
had fearlessly transformed himself into a memorable grotesque, dying his hair blond and projecting a disturbingly indefinable psychosexual edginess.
While Allen had gone on to play more conventional heavies — a member of a kidnapping ring in Shadow on the Window (1957), and an unstable mobster in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958) — it was the strange passivity he'd displayed as Roy that convinced Stevens and Colbert that he could play Duke.
* * *
"I wouldn't touch a big Hollywood picture with a barge pole. When millions are involved, you have to satisfy the bankers. I want to satisfy myself."
— Leslie Stevens, quoted in "New Wavelet," Time, 6/23/1960
While there were a number of fifties noirs that incorporated the beach into their themes and imagery, virtually none had centered themselves around one of the great post-WWII symbols of middle class affluence: the swimming pool. In He Ran All the Way
(1951), John Garfield and Shelly Winters "meet cute" (sort of) in a public pool, reminding the audience that the characters are anything but affluent.
Private Property plastered its symbols of affluence into the center of the action. Ann's nude swim (which the audience never sees — it is only reported on, with a spasmodic Neanderthal glee by Boots) is the tipping point of a psychosexual titillation that is heavily freighted with water imagery. The "backyard reservoir" becomes both a psychosexual and socioeconomic battleground as Duke carries out his slow, coiling seduction of Ann, a trophy wife whose physical needs are being neglected by her husband Roger, who is overly obsessed with his business prospects.
While the film is tame by today's standards (no explicit sexual activity is displayed), it's easy to see why it had so much trouble with the censors: Ann's sexual frustration is coarsely cued (several suggestive poses, the use of phallic symbols). We see her preparing for what she hopes to be a night of lovemaking; she enters the couple's boudoir in a fetching negligee, only to discover that Roger has gone to sleep. There is also frank and coarse talk from Duke about female sexuality — talk tinged with a kind of repressed rage that depicts the dangers of possessive individualism. It is incredibly important that Duke find a way to establish his sexual and psychological dominance as he executes his seduction: his ability to penetrate the pool's surface, to become wet by entering the water, is a turning point in his efforts. The ground shifts when he dives in, against the wishes of a startled, increasingly acquiescent Ann. It will shift again, with a fatal finality, when he next enters the pool.
To achieve the effects he needed, Stevens would require a particularly adept cinematographer, one who could handle a variety of interiors, camera set-ups, lighting requirements, and — in the film's frenetic denouement — underwater photography. Private Property benefited immeasurably from a chance meeting between producer Colbert and young camera operator Conrad Hall (who would soon become one of Hollywood's most accomplished lensmen). Hall had training in underwater photography, but he had something even more valuable for the film: a mentor named Ted McCord, one of film noir's most innovative cinematographers, a notably cantankerous personality who had nonetheless taken a fatherly shine to Hall.
McCord's long tenure with Warner Brothers had come to an end, and he was quickly enlisted for a fraction of his usual fee and an unusual film credit using only his name and association with the American Society of Cinematographers. (Hall, his camera operator and assistant, referred to this arrangement as the recognition that, more than anyone, it was McCord who was the actual star of the film.) The teamwork between McCord and Hall permitted the film, with its myriad of on-location set-ups, to be completed in just ten days of shooting at a total cost of just under $60,000.
Together, McCord and Hall would manage to use the swimming pool at Stevens' house to convey both complacency and menace, permitting it to operate simultaneously as a symbol of an elusive, sought-after dolce vita and a proxy for a sexual possession that signaled a pathological vida loca in which a morbidly materialist society would drown itself.
* * *
"What will we do with the picture? Who knows? Maybe it'll be great and everyone will want it. Maybe we'll chalk up the whole thing to experience and show it on 16mm in our living rooms."
— Leslie Stevens to Cecil Smith, "Young Pros Shoot Tense Film Drama in Backyard," Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1959
Despite his Wellesian predilections, Stevens was shrewd enough to know that his idol was once again in disgrace and in exile at the beginning of the sixties, so he and Colbert hitched themselves to the nouvelle vague
, promoting Private Property
as the exemplar of a new style of low-budget art-house filmmaking. But the crumbling vestiges of the Production Code, not yet reduced to rubble by Otto Preminger's battering ram, still presented a formidable obstacle.
When the film opened in New York in April 1960, it did so without Code approval and with a condemnation from the Legion of Decency. Its original booking guarantees were drastically reduced, and Private Property received only a small fraction of the exposure that had been expected from its pre-release hoopla. The queasy juxtaposition of sex, sociology and sickness produced decidedly mixed reviews, with few registering much appreciation for Corey Allen's nervy portrayal of Duke and none for the gleaming menace of the photography and editing.
was swiftly relegated to European art-houses (it was especially popular in Denmark, where it was actually re-released with some fanfare in 1965) and to occasional, private 16-mm screenings for those who later in the decade became convinced that it was a tract against capitalism.1
And there is much to support such an interpretation when we look closely at the character of Duke, who captures the essence of the patriarchal malaise in his self-destructive psychosexual clairvoyance. No more aberrant "man who understood women" can be found anywhere — in noir or otherwise: Duke's combination of mastery and incipient meltdown, of psychological insight and incipient derangement, is an embodiment of what Daniel Bell would term "the cultural contradictions of capitalism." He sees that Ann has been turned into a commodity, but he's unable to let go of the patriarchal code that has plagued civilization since its escape from what Marx called "primitive economies" (hunting and gathering). His act of seduction is, ironically, subversive and system-affirming at the same time.
Duke is a character who is undone and destroyed by the unhinging nature of his own expanded consciousness. He uses charm and a kind of clairvoyant knowledge to advance his seduction, but he must also shame Ann into a series of self-revelations about her own position in the scheme of things. What makes Duke a singular type of noir character is that he argues for the respect of the common working man while misrepresenting his own position in the overall social scheme of things.
The audience can only hold its breath as Duke becomes so overly invested in his scheme that he loses himself in it, unable to let go of the seduction, incapable of seeing that he has merely taken the principles of patriarchal subjugation to an equally untenable mirror image. He is merely a spectacularly maladjusted drifter here, but his character is prophetic in that he's a precursor to the counter-culture gurus and aberrant agents of discord who would begin to proliferate movie screens (and the real world) only a half-decade or so after the filming of Private Property.
In many respects, however, Duke's behavior is explainable as the late adolescent rebellion against authority in general and high-achieving fathers in particular — a life situation with which Leslie Stevens was intimately familiar.
* * *
"In the harsh light of today, the remote future is insubstantial as a dream. The actual world has entered its hour of gravest danger; the time of transformation is now."
— L. Clark Stevens, EST: The Steersman Handbook, 1970
Over the course of the next few years, Leslie Stevens would part company with nearly everyone involved in the production of Private Property. Stanley Colbert was the first to go, choosing to remain in the world of low-budget filmmaking. He would eventually teach screenwriting at the University of North Carolina; in the 90s, he would be hired by Rupert Murdoch to head the Canadian division of Harper Collins, a position from which he would wage an intricate internecine war against the hand that fed him (thus remaining true to his primordial Beat sensibilities).
Stevens used a large dollop of the cast and crew of Private Property in his next independent production, Hero's Island (1962), an odd period swashbuckler that featured James Mason as a sly variant on the pirate Blackbeard. McCord, Hall, Warren Oates, and Kate Manx (trading in her bikini for a more demure bodice) came along for the ride.
Hall's career as a cinematographer was given a significant boost when he assumed those duties from McCord during Stevens' first TV series, Stoney Burke (1962-63), a stylish "present-day" western featuring a pre-Hawaii Five-0 Jack Lord as a rodeo cowboy with a talent for getting into complicated situations, often with the "help" of his "friend" Ves Painter (played by Warren Oates).
Stevens and Hall would make a permanent mark in the television landscape the following year, however, when they became prominent contributors to the legendary, still-controversial science fiction series The Outer Limits
(1963-65). The late-term "noir ethos" that had been rekindled in works by Welles, Wendkos, Robert Wise (Odds Against Tomorrow
), and Irving Lerner (Murder by Contract
) found itself transplanted into The Outer Limits'
feverish extra-terrestrial interventions: Hall's work is the final efflorescence of the Alton aesthetic as refined by Ted McCord.
Stevens' personal life, however, was not keeping pace with his career. Even as she bore him a child, Kate Manx was becoming increasingly estranged from him. It was as if the husband-and-wife relationship in Private Property had transferred itself into real life. Shortly after giving birth, Manx filed for divorce amid allegations of mental cruelty and infidelity. The aftermath of the divorce decree, the custody battles, and the lingering tension over financial arrangements left Manx untethered, and she entered into a rebound relationship that only served to increase her agitation. Tragically, her theatrical "cry for help" pill-swallowing episode in late 1964 proved fatal. It was followed by a macabre, real-life "noir episode" when the simultaneous divorce/estate settlement process after her interment forced Stevens to ask for her remains to be exhumed in order to reclaim jewelry that had ostensibly been bured with her.
In his last full-blown artistic indulgence before acquiescing to the mainstream imperatives of the entertainment industry, Stevens combined his narrative and visual predilections into a singular anomaly — a Bergmanesque noir-horror hybrid called Incubus (1966), featuring William Shatner in his last semi-understated performance and bolstered by Conrad Hall's push-the-limits camerawork. Unfortunately, Stevens — becoming more and more drawn to the idea of the occult as a strain of avant-garde art — decided to write the film's screenplay in Esperanto. This "distancing effect" has served to distance the film from most of its intended audience.
Reigning in his artistic extremism at this point, Stevens would work steadily in television for the next twenty years (primarily in TV movies) — but he never lost his desire to examine "cutting-edge" ideas. He became immersed in what turned into the "new age" movement in the late sixties, becoming chummy with cyberneticists like Buckminister Fuller and attempted to become a futurist prophet in his own right. In 1970, a slim volume entitled EST: The Steersman Handbook was published: the author's name was L. Clark Stevens. EST, soon appropriated by "self-realization guru" Werner Erhard, stood for "Electronic Social Transformation," and Stevens positioned himself as a simultaneously naïve and sophisticated social prophet.
Most tellingly, he understood the danger faced by any movement of social transformation came from those who would misappropriate its message. He termed these folk "neo-primitives," those who spout a deranged, self-serving variation of the fragile new values being introduced as delicate tendrils in the highly toxic social soil. While Stevens was undoubtedly thinking of Charles Manson when he coined this character type, it might also have come from the dim memory of the disaffected Duke, whose powers of seduction only needed the right sugar-coated message (peace and love) to provide him with the tools to stage-manage a cult group. * * *
would be Corey Allen's only chance to play a leading role on-screen. It is his work, along with the achievements of McCord and Hall, that gives the film its twitchy, queasy edge. Contemporary reviewers who dismissed him as a kind of lapsed Brando were misguided; once the film can be rescued from its half-century of oblivion, Allen's fearless achievement will be fully recognized. While he was relegated to character roles in the early '60s, Allen made a smooth transition into directing and teaching, and — as has often been the case for those whose best chance at acclaim was sucked down a rabbit hole — became a nurturing force for others. Greatly beloved by his students, he passed away in 2010.
1. "I vividly remember being dragged up a warped staircase in the early 60s to a threadbare Hollywood screening room for an 'invitation only' screening. The film was entitled Private Property, directed by Leslie Stevens. It starred unknowns Corey Allen, Kate Manx, and Warren Oates. The story was a bizarre, frank, and harsh examination of capitalism and sexual ownership with hints of a hidden homosexual relationship thrown in for good measure. It was brilliantly written, acted, and directed. It was also an independent production, mounted by Stevens and his producers for a mere $60,000. It was released in Denmark in 1960 to rave reviews and re-released in that same country in 1965. Almost nobody in the United States has ever seen the film Hooray for Hollywood?" — Gary Kent, Shadows and Light: Journeys with Outlaws in Revolutionary Hollywood, Dalton Publishing, 2009
Don Malcolm has been editor of Noir City, the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-zine, since 2006. His book Noir in the Sixties will be published in 2013. His company, Midcentury Productions, is currently partnering with Ghostbox Studios to produce Unsung Hero, a documentary chronicling the life and career of actor-producer-writer Don Murray. (Painting of author by Laurie Pincus.)
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