Tuesday 15 July 2014

Movie Review: This Property Is Condemned (1966)

A tale of southern desperation inspired by a Tennessee Williams one-act play, This Property Is Condemned simmers on steady heat but never quite sizzles.

The story unfolds as one long flashback from the perspective of a young woman called Willie (Mary Badham). It's the middle of the Great Depression in the small fictional town of Dodson, Mississippi, where the railroad provides the only employment. The mysterious, quiet and extremely handsome Owen Legate (Robert Redford) arrives in town and meets Willie, her older sister Alva (Natalie Wood), and their mother Hazel (Kate Reid), who operates a boarding house. Hazel has been abandoned by her husband, and tough railway man J.J. Nichols (Charles Bronson) pretends to be interested in filling the void while barely concealing his lust for Alva, the town's sex pot. Meanwhile, Hazel exploits Alva's sexuality to snare potential meal tickets, the latest being Mr. Johnson (John Harding).

Alva is attracted to Owen the moment she sees him, but he is initially not impressed with her fanciful imagination and the way she toys with men at the behest of her mother. But gradually their relationship develops into a romance, which gets complicated when Owen's motive for coming to Dodson is revealed. With Hazel growing increasingly desperate for Alva to show some love for Johnson, J.J. willing to risk everything for a chance to be with Alva, and Owen quickly becoming the most hated man in town, emotions reach a boiling point.

The second movie directed by Sydney Pollack, This Property Is Condemned is a talkative piece of Americana, steeped in the south at a time when desperation was every adult's middle name. There are no sympathetic characters in Dodson, and this both elevates and hampers the film. The men and women of the derelict railway town outdo each other in meanness and narcissism as they trample over each other to try and escape the economic quagmire, oblivious that their collective stampede is only succeeding in digging a deeper hole of desolation.

Hazel, J.J., Alva and Mr. Johnson really do deserve each other, and certainly don't deserve any better. It is questionable whether outsider Owen is an improvement over the townsfolk, and certainly his chosen profession denotes a cold heart, a comfort with others' agony and an inability to settle down. The cocktail of insensitive characters makes for trainwreck-style entertainment, ironic in the context of a railway town, and it's clear early on most of the residents of Dodson are unlikely to be clever enough to stumble onto happy endings.

The lack of any displayed empathy also means This Property Is Condemned remains a relatively detached exercise. It is difficult to care about Alva despite her miserable dilemmas: she is simply too self-obsessed and too far gone into her fantastical stories and flirtatious games to generate genuine warmth. And it's equally difficult to invest in the unlikely relationship between her and Owen, who never moves beyond the observant interloper. Hazel and J.J. are there to wallow in an ugly existence of their own making, their levels of desperation having long since pushed them to the darkest corners of selfishness.

A vivacious Natalie Wood brings Alva to full life as a woman who knows that she is too beautiful for her surroundings, and who is as trapped by her irresistible looks as she is by her depressed town. Mary Badham, of To Kill A Mockingbird fame, is excellent as the counterpoint younger sister, and the only character in the film young enough to not quite yet be consumed by the rampant despondency. Charles Bronson, Robert Redford and Kate Reid are good, but stick to variations on a single note. Robert Blake and Dabney Coleman have small roles.

The screenplay (co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) does pick up steam in the final third as the characters talk less and hurtle purposefully towards their fate, with Pollack making excellent use of a very wet New Orleans as the action moves to the big city. In the opening scene Hazel's boarding house is presented as abandoned, the building condemned. The movie works its way to an outcome of compounded misery, the result of an economic disaster and egotistical floundering.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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