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  Landlord, The You'll Have To Speak With The Owner
Year: 1970
Director: Hal Ashby
Stars: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Walter Brooke, Louis Gossett Jr, Marki Bey, Mel Stewart, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein, Will Mackenzie, Gretchen Walther, Douglas Grant, Stanley Greene, Trish Van Devere, Hector Elizondo, Gloria Hendry
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is a wealthy heir who still lives with his family in his father's mansion situated in a well-to-do area of New York, but he feels it is time he started to branch out on his own, and he sees the property market as the finest way to do so. So it is that he arrives in his car at the door of the tenement building of which he is now the landlord, though not to the reception he would have wanted, mainly thanks to him bumping other vehicles as he parks, but also because he's practically the sole white man in the neighbourhood of Park Slope...

Hal Ashby was an accomplished editor who got his chance to direct through his association with established filmmaker Norman Jewison, acting as producer here to his good friend's debut. It set out his style pretty much as he meant to go on, that loose, sardonic but humane approach which served him so well throughout the nineteen-seventies, but which proved his undoing in the following decade when a stricter regime demanded a less lassez-faire mindset to making Hollywood product. Watching The Landlord, you can see he was very much part of the American New Wave with its mixture of fashionable subjects and a countercultural edge providing the bedrock for a new broom to sweep through the industry.

The subject here was race, rendering this an intriguing snapshot of how people were thinking about the issues that brought up, though quite how much of what was depicted here was agreeing with how the majority of Americans were viewing their country is unclear. We certainly got an impression of a tension between black and white, yet that could be in this case a problem concerning the haves and have-nots more than it was anything inherent in how the races regarded one another. The original author of the novel this was adapted from, Kristin Hunter, was African American, which might explain why the well-off whites, in particular Lee Grant excellent as the appalled mother, are drawn with such broad strokes.

Then again, this was at least partly a comedy and the laughs had to stem from somewhere, though the black characters initially come across like "kill whitey" caricatures, if not out for Elgar's blood, then definitely not offering him anything like a warm welcome. Once we had the kids stealing his hubcaps and Pearl Bailey brandishing a shotgun at him, all for us to laugh at the differences this raised, the plot began to think up ways of bringing us together. In that manner it was the notion of races sleeping together in fulfilling, near-spiritual sexual encounters that appeared to be their solution to any lingering awkwardness or hostility racism might have thrown up as a barrier, not something you imagine community leaders would have promoted, not without controversy anyway.

But this does have Elgar having his libido fed by not one but two black women, one, Fanny (Diana Sands, who tragically died three years after this was made) who is already married (to Louis Gossett Jr) but finds her initial grumpiness in Elgar's company thawed considerably when she realises he's a nice chap after all, and the other mixed race dancer Lainie (Marki Bey, who deserved a better acting career) who falls for him but is understandably put out when his affair is revealed with sobering consequences. Combined with this was some very cartoonish digs at Elgar's background which makes us appreciate both what he has to put behind him (his father is especially offensive), but also why he is driven to be so right on when those around him are bemused at best by his behaviour. After a while the laughs dry up and The Landlord grows to look like a method of tackling white middle class guilt about contemporary racial problems, but it is well acted even if its relevancy, in this style, might have passed to an extent. Music by Al Kooper.

[Studio Canal have released this on Region 2 DVD with no extras, but it is a much-sought after title for cult movie fans. And check out that cover artwork!]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Hal Ashby  (1929 - 1988)

Cult American director who started out as an editor, notably on such works as The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to his friendship with Norman Jewison he was able to direct his first film, The Landlord, and the seventies represented the golden years of his career with his sympathetic but slightly empty dramas striking a chord with audiences. His films from this period were Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. But come the eighties, Ashby's eccentricities and drug dependency sabotaged his career, and he ended it directing a forgotten TV movie before his untimely death from cancer.

 
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