Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Movie Review: This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, directed by Sydney Pollack (1966)

Robert Redford and Natalie Wood make a gorgeous couple in This Property is Condemned, 1966.

Director Sydney Pollack talks things over with stars Robert Redford and Natalie Wood, while Charles Bronson relaxes in the background.

The stunningly beautiful Natalie Wood in This Property is Condemned, 1966.
A Southern accent lets you get away with a lot. If you’re a movie character from the South, you can be as weird and eccentric as you want, and people will just write it off. If you acted the same way, but were from the North, people would instantly think you’re crazy. That thought came to me as I was watching This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. It’s based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, who virtually trademarked Southern eccentrics. Early on in the movie, Redford’s character has a short speech where he says, “Do you know there was a cat once who fell asleep in the sun and dreamt that he was a man who fell asleep and dreamt he was a cat. When he woke up, he didn’t know if he was a man or a cat.” What the hell does that mean? Because that speech is delivered in Redford’s Southern accent, it sounds vaguely poetic, as though there’s a deeper hidden meaning in that story. Had that same speech been delivered in a Northern accent, I would have quickly come to the conclusion that Redford’s character was a deranged serial killer, and I would have been shouting at the TV, telling Natalie Wood’s character to get out of his room.

This Property is Condemned plows the same fields as much of Williams’ other work, and it’s not one of his major works. As Gore Vidal wrote of Williams in his excellent 1976 essay, “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self,” “Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time he was an adolescent he had his themes. Constantly he plays and replays the same small but brilliant set of cards.” (United States: Essays 1952-1992, p.1146) This Property is Condemned is set in a small town in Mississippi during the Great Depression, and it focuses on Alva Starr, (the luscious Natalie Wood) her domineering mother Hazel (Kate Reid) and Alva’s younger sister Willie (Mary Badham). Hazel runs a boarding house, and she’s basically pimping out the beautiful Alva for dates with men in order to make some extra money. Ironically, Kate Reid was only 7 years older than Natalie Wood, which shows the difference between being a leading lady and a character actress. Things get shaken up when handsome stranger Owen Legate (the super handsome Robert Redford) takes a room at the boardinghouse. Legate is in town to hand out pink slips to some of the railroad men, who all seem to also live at the boardinghouse. (Look for the always creepy Robert Blake in a small part as Sidney.) Legate is at first dismissive of the flirtatious Alva, but he eventually realizes his attraction to her. 

Owen and Alva spend a passionate night together after he’s beaten up by some of the angry railroad workers he laid off. (Being a super handsome guy like Robert Redford means that you get the shit kicked out of you a lot on screen. See also: Tom Cruise.) Alva wants to leave her annoying mother and move to a big city, so Owen buys her a train ticket to New Orleans, where he lives. But then he overhears Hazel telling someone about their plans to move to Memphis with a rich older gentleman and angrily confronts Alva and leaves town in a huff. Knowing she’s lost Owen, a drunken Alva confronts her mother, her mother’s sleazy boyfriend J.J. (Charles Bronson) and Mr. Johnson, (John Harding) the rich older gentleman who wants the Starrs to move to Memphis. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and Wood delivers an exquisite performance as she demolishes their hypocrisy. Unfortunately, Alva drunkenly demands that J.J. should marry her that night if he really loves her. Her behavior doesn’t really make much sense, as it’s been clear throughout the movie that she despises J.J.’s attempts to flirt with her. Anyway, they get married, spend the night together, and the next morning Alva steals his money and takes a train to New Orleans. Fortunately, she finds Owen again, and it looks like things will end happily for them. The movie seems to go through a tonal shift once we get to New Orleans. It suddenly feels like the 1960’s rather than the 1930’s, as Alva moves into Owen’s apartment and happily waits for him to come home from work. But then Mother shows up and ruins everything. She tells Owen of Alva’s marriage to J.J., Alva runs out into the rain, catches a cold, and dies. 

The acting in This Property is Condemned is superb, as Wood delivers an amazing performance. I suspect that she probably identified with Alva’s situation, as Wood’s real-life mother was basically the stage mother from hell, and closely controlled Wood’s life as a child actress. Wood was enthusiastic about playing the role of Alva, saying it was “probably the closest I’ll ever get to playing Blanche DuBois.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.304) Wood is beautiful, sexy, and touching as the hopelessly romantic Alva. Wood’s wardrobe is amazing, and the dresses that Edith Head created for her show off her beauty very well. Wood and Redford make a stunningly attractive screen couple, and their chemistry is obvious. Although the film was not a hit when it was released in August, 1966, Wood was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Drama, but she lost to Anouk Aimee, who won for her role in A Man and a Woman

Wood had previously starred with Robert Redford in 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover, and during the shooting of that film she approached him about pairing with her again in This Property is Condemned. At that point in his career, Redford had done a lot of TV work, but he wasn’t yet a big movie star, as his breakthrough roles came in 1967’s Barefoot in the Park and 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford said yes to Wood, and he pushed for his friend Sydney Pollack as director, even though Pollack had only directed one movie. This Property is Condemned was the first movie directed by Pollack that Redford starred in, and they would go on to make seven movies together. I always like Robert Redford’s confidence on screen. Of course, I’d be confident too if I looked like Robert Redford. Redford seems to have that confidence in every role he plays, and it works especially well for Owen’s character. If someone else were playing Owen, he might seem like a real jerk. 

The supporting cast is excellent as well, particularly Mary Badham as Willie. Badham is best known for playing Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and This Property is Condemned is one of her only other acting roles. Pollack’s direction is very good, and he’s helped out by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, who gets to do several of his trademark long tracking shots from helicopters. Perhaps the most impressive tracking shot is the one as Alva is riding the train to New Orleans. The camera starts outside the train, focusing on Natalie Wood’s face, and then pulling back to reveal the entire train as it crosses a bridge. It’s a beautiful shot.

If you’re a fan of the beautiful and talented Natalie Wood or the handsome and talented Robert Redford, or you just need a Tennessee Williams fix, check out This Property is Condemned.

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