In film, it’s all about distribution.
For more than 40 years, the tantalizing 1960 film noir Private Property, starring Warren Oates, Corey Allen and Kate Manx, directed by Leslie Stevens, was lost. Nothing of the film could be found anywhere.
And then a few years ago, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, one of the world’s largest collections of moving images, acquired an assortment of works that happened to include a duplicate negative of a movie which establishment Hollywood panned, severely limiting its theatrical run.
Not only was Private Property denied the industry’s Production Code seal of approval, the precursor to present-day ratings, the Catholic Legion of Decency also condemned the film, which portrayed a woman willingly involved in adultery, two men whose relationship smacks of homoeroticism and a biting critique of the American Dream.
When Dennis Bartok of Cinelicious, a Los Angeles digital production and restoration house, was told by a colleague about Private Property, he pounced at the opportunity to restore the film and produce a digital copy. Private Property was shown publicly in New York this week at the Film Society at Lincoln Center as part of a retrospective on Warren Oates and will run Thursday at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, Calif.
Later this year, Private Property will get the distribution Stevens could only have dreamed about when Cinelicious markets a Blu-Ray copy of the film and it becomes more widely available on a yet-to-be-named streaming platform.
“This one is really remarkable because it was such a good film, and such a subversive film, and then to have had it completely slip through the cracks of film history, that’s pretty unique,” Bartok said. “There are many films from the 1920s, 30s and 40s that are lost, but once you get into the late 1950s and 1960s, very few are missing.”
Looking back more than 50 years since the film debuted, Bartok said Private Property could be called one of the first indie films of the modern era.
Stevens, who would later create the sci-fi television thriller The Outer Limits, was looking to make a splash after earning fame with the Broadway comedy The Marriage-Go-Round. Produced on a decidedly low budget of $50,000, Private Property was shot almost entirely at Stevens’ house, which he shared with his then-wife, Manx. The two would divorce shortly after the film, and a couple of years later, Manx would commit suicide.
The film’s plot, Bartok said, was hatched by Stevens and producer Stanley Colbert, a book agent who repped Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, among other titles. Stevens and Colbert were said to have been inspired by the empty house immediately next door to Stevens’ swimming pool. The two men broke into the home and then wondered whether two drifters might do the same.
Stevens, who worked for a time for Orson Welles, then landed cinematographer Ted McCord, who previously had shot Treasure of the Sierra Madre and East of Eden. McCord later would shoot The Sound of Music.
But the real attraction to Private Property may be the debut of Warren Oates, a singular actor of the New Hollywood of the 1960s and ’70s who would create a cultlike following for his performances in The Wild Bunch, Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter.
Oates’ flirtatious guile with Manx is juxtaposed by his rivalry with the seductive and seedy Corey Allen, known for his role as James Dean’s rival in Rebel Without a Cause. Both men struggle to win the ardor of a housewife beset by her husband’s indifference. That Oates’ first major film was lost for decades makes Private Property‘s unearthing something of a phenomenon.
Private Property was released briefly in the U.S. and in a couple of foreign markets, most likely in France and the Netherlands, Bartok said. To most U.S. critics, Private Property was a sleazy exploitation film, though it did generate an enthusiastic following among cinemaphiles and left-leaning intellectuals. The film was released independently through Kano Production in the spring of 1960 though it played in only a handful of theaters.
“It’s this very bleak, savage portrait of the hollowness of the American Dream,” Bartok said. “Kate Manx is living in a beautiful Beverly Hills home, yet she’s desperately unhappy. That was an incredibly subversive thing to say in 1960 — you can have all of that and it doesn’t bring you happiness.”
As a result of its relative lack of success, and possibly Stevens’ own turbulent life, Private Propertywas lost for decades. Owing to good fortune and modern technologies, Private Property will get a second run in movie theaters and a streaming deal that will finally take it global.