Overlooked Gems: The Landlord (1970)
I am a relatively new resident of New York City. I have lived in the city for 8 years, but compared to lifetime residents, I’m a newbie. Sometimes New York films can make that fact especially noticeable when you see just how much things can change in a few years. One of the most popular and expensive parts of Brooklyn is Park Slope…but it’s only been like this for the past 10-20 years. In the 1970s, the area was far from the gentrified, over-priced neighborhood it would become and the demographics of the area were completely different. It wasn’t until the neighborhood began to be flipped, with real-estate developers wanting to invest and make profit in neighborhoods which were still considered part of the ghetto.
This time period was captured in Hal Ashby’s directorial debut The Landlord, in what was perhaps the most daring film the director ever made. The film focuses on “likable asshole” (it’s the only description that fits) Elgar (Beau Bridges), who buys an apartment house walk-up, hoping to convert it into a large home, once he can relocate all the residents in the house. But eviction is difficult and the longtime residents have little interest in “helping” their new Landlord meet his goals. There are two neighbors Elgar seems to be able to get in favor of, Marge (Pearl Bailey) who takes a liking to the sweet, naive young man, and Fanny (Diana Sands) who has a sexual attraction to him, despite being married to Copee (Louis Gosett Jr.). And then he meets Lanie (Marki Bey), a go-go dancer of mixed race who is attracted to the immature, oblivious man in-spite of her own good judgement.
Elgar is a naive character who seems incapable of seeing the reality of the world he lives in. He isn’t a racist character, just an ill-informed one. But part of this comes from the world he was raised in, with socially oblivious siblings (Susan Anspach and Will Mackenzie) and racist parents (Lee Grant and Walter Brooke). And there is honor in Elgar’s desire to change his course in life by rejecting their lifestyles and views. But he goes about making these changes in such haphazard ways, he causes chaos and destruction, to the point that he would refer to himself as a “bastard,” in a moment of true personal growth and awareness.
The Landlord actually is as much a coming of age film as it is a social satire, and the performance by leading actor Beau Bridges is simply brilliant. Perhaps his younger brother Jeff Bridges’s rise to stardom overshadowed his own career, but it’s easy to forget that there was a time that Beau Bridges was considered a leading man for the next generation, with standout performances in films such as The Incident, For Love of Ivy, and Norma Rae. And to watch his leading performance in The Landlord, the reason for his popularity at this time was obvious. Like the laid-back California alternative to Dustin Hoffman’s East Coast neurosis in The Graduate, he has a charisma which was rare for such a relatable guy. He could play characters who were goodhearted, but too naive and inexperienced for their (and inner-circle’s) own good. And Elgar, as unlikable as he can be, never falls so low that he’s hard to watch. It is close to the kind of role you might see Ryan Gosling play today.
But it would be hard for anyone making mainstream feature films to make something like this anytime soon. Not that we don’t make films about issues of race, but there have been very few to ever deal with how white and black people relate in such a realistic and pragmatic way. And for a film made of and about it’s time, there are moments which are very disturbing when it becomes apparent that there have not been as many big changes as we might like to think. Because this movie isn’t about big things like political changes or triumphs in the Civil Rights moment, but how people relate, one on one, when exposed to someone or something different. And as ridiculous as Elgar is, his tenants aren’t saintly characters themselves. Some haven’t paid rent for months, threaten him with violence, and happily use his inexperience against him. But Elgar is the intruder in their apartment and neighborhood, the place they have grown up and raised their families. And they’ve learned, through experience and teachings, that the white man couldn’t and shouldn’t be trusted. And ultimately, their mistrust was just, as men like Elgar would be the individuals who would force them from their neighborhood in just a few years.
The Landlord is a daring and aggressive movie which fits perfectly within the American Revolution of new independent filmmaking which would flourish in the 1970s. And Hal Ashby was one of these filmmakers whose voice and visual style was a part of this time of change. Harold and Maude was certainly the film to bring him to the public’s attention, with the way it touched on the youth generation and inspired so many filmmakers in the future (most notably Wes Anderson). But there are elements of this film which show signs of the steady visual/musical style and editing which would become part of his appeal. His wide-shots and long takes, even as characters remain relatively still, and use of stark naturalistic settings became part of his “look.” Because of this, there isn’t a moment on screen when the characters don’t seem to be in a real place, as if we are ease-dropping at their most intimate moments, but can’t look away. The movie is never pretty, or easy, but it is consistently engrossing.
If you want to check out The Landlord (and a billion other great classic releases), head over to the WB Shop and check out the Warner Archive.