You’ll find it in the depths of Prime Video, provocatively labelled “Private Property – a psycho-sexual thrill ride”. In the accompanying artwork, a stilettoed blonde bombshell displays her rear to camera, her black and white image garishly colorised in purple and yellow. Among the listed cast, character actor Warren Oates is the biggest name, while if you’ve heard of the film’s director, Leslie Stevens, at all, it’s possibly as one of the minds behind the late-70s TV’s Star Wars knock-off Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Such a package could easily be mistaken for cheap streaming dregs. And Private Property most certainly is cheap, shot as it was largely at its director’s house for less than $60,000, a tiny sum even in 1960 when the film was released to minor outrage from those who saw it. Dregs, however, this shady home invasion thriller ain’t.
Beginning seemingly at the end of a twisted Kerouacian travelogue, Private Property opens with weary young travellers Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Oates) stopping by a coastal SoCal gas station and attempting to rob it. When model housewife Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx) rolls through in a shiny new Corvette, Duke sees a prize victim to whom the simple-minded Boots can lose his virginity, and promptly hitches the pair a ride to her Hollywood Hills home in pursuit. There, Duke inveigles his way into Ann’s apparently picture-perfect life while her husband is away, her welcoming him in first out of pity, then desire, and him finding he may not even need to coerce his lonely quarry into sex.
Uncomfortable for its sexual politics and taste in amoral protagonists even now, it’s hardly conceivable that Private Property could have existed in 1960 – indeed, the film could only have been made on the fringes of Old Hollywood. Funded independently, the production took place over 10 days, with Stevens’ home playing the Carlyle residence and his then-wife Manx taking the role of Mrs Carlyle. Shot quickly and creatively by the Treasure of the Sierra Madre director of photography, Ted McCord, with future three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall as camera operator, Private Property has the shadowy, angular photography of a noir, albeit one more suggestively, violently sexual than any made in the genre’s golden age. In one moment, we watch a drunken Ann slowly being danced towards the bedroom by Duke through the distorted glass of a tumbler, a dreamlike shot that carries nightmarish implications.
In an early appearance, future Peckinpah favourite Oates makes short work of a characteristically scuzzy bad guy role, though better still is Corey Allen as the noxiously charismatic Duke. Perhaps best known as cocksure Buzz Gunderson in Rebel Without a Cause, here Allen plays a calculating know-it-all, a down-on-his-luck regular Joe, a boyishly charming seducer and an entitled, bloody-minded psychopath. The latter is Duke’s true face, bared when he’s incapacitating Ann with alcohol or mockingly describing her as his plaything following a pleasant afternoon at her side: “She’s a cow … If I wanted her for myself, I could have her in the garage or on the patio, or I could have pushed her in the pool.”
Though Stevens would go on to work in popular television, creating shows of a sci-fi bent like The Outer Limits, at the time of his directorial debut his interests were more grounded. Inspired by the French new wave, Stevens and producer Stanley Colbert endeavoured to be “authentic”. And so Private Property is a snapshot of America in this moment, a sinister one, looking ahead to what the country will become. Duke and Boots speak the easygoing lingo of the Beats, but their dark, destructive view of America, in particular its affluent classes, suggests the Manson Family. Their target, meanwhile, is a young woman secretly dissatisfied with the supposedly ideal trappings of a steady marriage in suburbia, and freer with her sexuality than Hollywood studio films of the period would care to admit a woman could be. Class tensions and forbidden desires simmer under the surface. At the end of the 1960s, the postwar American dream would have become curdled; in Private Property, we see it already starting to turn.
Dismissed in its time – the film was condemned by the National Legion of Decency, declared indecent (if artfully made) by critics, called an “awful, sordid thing” by Jackie Kennedy – Private Property was lost for a period following its 1960 release, before it was rediscovered, restored and re-evaluated as an impressive early example of indie film-making almost six decades later. Despite being given a modern polish for its re-release in 2016, though, the film hasn’t shaken all of the grainy, tinny imperfections imposed by its shoestring production, the rough edges baked into the negative of an inescapably grubby little post-noir.
Private Property is available on Amazon Prime in the US and UK