The Landlord, the long overlooked (in fact nearly forgotten) directorial debut of Hal Ashby, is a loose cannon, something that befits the career of its director. Hollywood maverick Ashby may have been at the directorial helm for the first time for this film but he was allowed creative free rein because he had won an Oscar as editor on Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967). The bond between Jewison and Ashby was clearly a strong one as Jewison produced The Landlord, seeing the potential that his editor had to call his own shots in the directorial process. However, after another big success with The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), the truth is that Jewison, at the time involved with making Fiddler on the Roof (1971), was just too busy to direct The Landlord himself. So he asked Ashby. Just like In the Heat of the Night, Ashby’s directorial debut takes the issue of race relations in America as its overriding theme.
Adapted from the 1966 novel by African-American Kristin Hunter (whose work usually confronted issues of race and gender) and adapted into a screenplay by Bill Gunn (also a novelist, actor and film director), The Landlord was made at a time when the assassinations of human rights activists Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 were still very much in the global consciousness. The film, though consistently satirical in tone, is arguably displaced as a comedy-drama considering its subject and time. However, it does give the audience an original slant on both racial prejudice and segregation in a run-down part of New York (it was filmed in Brooklyn) with its tenement blocks and poor immigrant communities.
The plot concerns privileged Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders (Beau Bridges) – polite, handsome and clean-cut in appearance – who is from a well-off family and living on a large estate away from the city, where big business contracts are discussed by his ex-military father William (Walter Brooke) over games of golf. Elgar, considered to be a family outcast, attempts to join the fold by persuading his parents to help him invest in real estate. What he doesn’t foresee is that evicting his existing tenants (some of whom owe many months back rent) will be a much harder task then he first envisaged. However, he comes to not only sympathise with them but soon becomes entrenched in their lives as well, causing much (albeit largely muted) disdain from his ‘liberal’ mother Joyce, played by Lee Grant (an eccentric performance which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). His brother William Enders Jr. (Will Mackenzie) is like his father in more than just name but Elgar does have a sympathetic sister called Susan (Susan Anspach). At least, she’s sympathetic when she’s ‘stoned’. The family is humorously depicted as eccentric but also socially out of touch with the larger world.
When Elgar buys his new apartment he soon meets Fanny (Diana Sands) and her angry activist husband Copee (an interesting early role from Louis Gossett Jr.), a poverty stricken couple who owe rent but are unable to afford it and are not remotely intimidated by their fresh faced new landlord. Apparently disinterested in their situation initially, Bridges starts to befriend Fanny and a mutual physical attraction adds more tension to the situation. When he goes to a nearby nightclub, Elgar’s casual womanising flirtations become complicated further when he falls for a mixed-race nightclub dancer Lanie (the compelling and little seen Marki Bey who retired after just three more films), at first believing her to be white. From this point on, The Landlord becomes progressively more serious in its tone and dialogue, with less focus on minor clichéd characters, comedic interludes and respites.
Looking at influences, it’s easy to recall allusions to John Cassavetes’ debut feature Shadows (1959) which focuses on the social stigma and emotional complications caused by a mixed race (also white man-black woman) couple. That film was daring and ground-breaking but Ashby’s film is comparatively light in its treatment of the subject and often refrains from depicting the serious social consequences of racial difference. The Landlord focuses more on the consequences of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, so the black people in the film represent the poor regardless of colour. (Indeed, it could be cited as the first film about gentrification.) Additionally, it could be considered that Jewison-Ashby made films which wanted to bring black people into the mainstream and were for a multi-ethnic audience rather than just paying lip-service to integration struggles.
The Landlord comes to DVD for the first time but, in terms of its stock preservation, age has seemingly not been kind. The film quality is slightly rough, which suggests restoration budget problems. Though the original film had the feeling of a low-budget independent production (likely shot on 16mm) the end-credits seem to stop abruptly, so one wonders if they were lost, unsalvageable, or if perhaps the only print available was a transfer from TV. Though the film had been released on VHS it has been out of print for many years, with old copies circulating online. For those who have always praised the film, though, this only adds to its untainted cult legend. Speaking prior to a rare public screening in New York in 2007, Beau Bridges commented ‘It’s kind of an imperfect film because it was Hal’s first, and he kind of honed his craft as he went along,’ Mr. Bridges said of Mr. Ashby, who died in 1988. ‘But I’d like people to know about it.’* It’s disappointing then that Bridges, or indeed anyone else associated with the film who is still living, isn’t featured to talk about their recollections on the DVD extras for which, unfortunately, there are none on this edition.
*From ‘Before Gentrification Was Cool, It Was a Movie’ By Mike Hale, www.nytimes.com, Published: September 19, 2007, accessed September 15, 2012