Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Adapted from one of his less well-known plays, This Property is Condemned should have been
Tennessee Williams' Greatest Hits. It's all there, the depression setting with crude men
circling like dixie moths around an oversexed child-woman undergoing the spiritual crisis of losing
her dignity to 'the kindness of strangers.'
In glorious Technicolor and shaped as a star vehicle for the ultra-glamorous Natalie Wood, the
basically trashy little story is bent all out of shape. Interesting casting makes it fun to
watch and it stands as a good example of Hollywood trying to push the limits of the production
code, but overall the film fails - we've seen it all before, and the fancy trimmings just make
it look more fake than it is.
Railroad agent Owen Legate (Robert Redford) comes to the small town of
Dodson Mississippi to lay off
most of its railroad employees, many of whom live and carouse at the boarding house of
Hazel Starr (Kate Reid). Owen grows fond of Hazel's younger daughter Willie (Mary Badham) but
falls in love with her older sister Alva (Natalie Wood) a vivacious beauty. But the wicked
Hazel exploits Alva for the men she attracts, and Alva's already on the way to
being considered a loose woman - at age seventeen.
Depression Mississippi never looked so good. James Wong Howe's color is breathtaking and the grimy
depression folk look like glamorous movie stars, well, at least when they're impersonated by
Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. Paramount's art department makes sure that every period detail
smack us right on the nose, even
though hairstyles and costumes go to pot as soon as Alva Starr hits the streets of New Orleans. The
contrast between this picture and the next year's Bonnie and Clyde is startling; Clyde
isn't anachronism-free, but its version of the 1930s is a dusty, static time trap we
believe, and not this candy-coated bon bon.
The familiar story and the overall Hollywood glitz are what do in This Property is
Condemned, not the acting. Alva Starr needs to be a ravishing young thing like Natalie Wood
to raise all the excitement the story demands. If only her makeup and hairstyles were keyed
to the story instead of the requirements of her star image. The contrast between Natalie in this
film and Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass can be summed up in star glamour; in the
earlier film the story comes first. Here, even the fireflies are color-coded electric lights.
Robert Redford had about the slowest and least exciting career arcs of any young 60s actor. In both
this film and the same year's commercially disastrous The Chase he comes in for some physical
punishment, even though it's Brando who gets the bejeezus beaten out of him (another must for a
Williams story) in the Arthur Penn movie. Yet he's still an inexpressive pretty face - whenever he
reacts in dumb shock to some real or imagined offense by Alva, we have to wait for his next dialogue
to find out how he really feels. Redford only came into his own in later, faux-hip
pictures like Butch Cassidy where he was permitted to be funny too.
Even the greasy grotesques that surround Redford are Hollywood off-the-shelf types. Charles Bronson
is good, but his role as a crude working man uses his physical type in the same way he was shoehorned
as an Indian a decade before. Robert Blake is an unappealing crybaby. The fat cat who just wants
'a few weeks of Alva's kindness' is the anonymous-looking but shuddersome John Harding, and is
much more successful for being an unfamiliar face.
The best thing in the picture is Kate Reid as Hazel, Alva's manipulative mother who literally
tries to prostitute her own daughter. It's an extreme character and it takes a talent like Reid to
make it work; once again it's the actress's unfamiliarity that allows us to believe in her. If it
was Rosalind Russell, we'd just wonder what was going on, or when the character would reform.
The production bends over backwards to make everything pretty - not pretty-painful as in Splendor
in the Grass, but pretty-pretty. The locations may be authentic but the atmosphere is not. In
his second film, director Pollack might not have carried the weight to wrest the film from powerful
Paramount craft departments, or perhaps this is producer Ray Stark's idea of how to make a movie.
Co-Producer John Houseman is associated with great films, many of them commercial failures,
but there's little of his dark literary undercurrents on display here.
What we have is a big dose of Hollywood gloss. The effort to be daring within the limits of the
production code makes every peek-a-boo glimpse of Natalie's body seem forced and silly. There's
a chaste skinny-dipping scene and chaste opportunities for Nat to get nude for dialogues
with Reid and Redford. By the time Redford charges into her shower, it's just ridiculous. The
movie is too glamorous and Wood too regal a star to profit from naturalistic touches like partial
nudity which only emphasizes what the film can't show rather than what it could show.
Hollywood directors demanded the freedom to have adult material in films, and the MPAA finally gave
them Valenti and the ratings system.
This Property is Condemned is a casualty of the transition period when tame 'racy' pictures
carried the disclaimer, 'Intended for Mature Audiences.' The odd thing is that Ms. Wood wouldn't
have done nude scenes anyway. One of the last of the real studio-grown stars, she was no
exhibitionist and didn't need the exposure to get attention. Interestingly, after a couple of
more films and reasonable success with the dated Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, she stopped
showing up on theater screens.
If William's self-consciously tawdry tale were done completely honestly it would be a sordid mess of
lowlifes wallowing in the ick of child abuse, molestation and prostitution. There's nothing
fantastic about that, historically speaking, but Hollywood certainly couldn't handle it before
(The Story of Temple Drake, 1932) and it took a Frenchman to make it even momentarily
palatable in 1978's Pretty Baby.
This Property is Condemned is also noted for Francis Coppola's leap into studio writing. He
went right from Roger Corman's stable of talent to script doctoring for pictures like this one and
Is Paris Burning? and discerning
isn't easy. Something's off in this picture, for just when it looks like it's over, with a pullback
helicopter shot and everything, the locale
changes to the big city and the story lumbers on for another twenty minutes of false conclusions.
We don't want to see Alva become a prostitute, or Charles Bronson come busting back in for revenge
and kill somebody. Even though neither of those things happen, what does happen isn't very satisfying.
Nobody should take credit for the awkward framing device with little sister Mary
Badham walking the railroad tracks wearing Natalie's dress and singing her old song. She isn't
half as convincing as she was in (To Kill a Mockingbird) and the
construction is an obvious bore: "See that old house ... it all happened
right there." If This Property is Condemned was more or less ignored by audiences, it was
because they'd seen it all before.
Paramount's DVD of This Property is Condemned has nothing to be ashamed of - the DVD looks
great and sports colors that pop like real Technicolor. James Wong Howe's showoff images, such as the
beautiful shot of Alva blowing out her birthday candles, will certainly please Natalie
Wood's fans. The Audio is as solid as the picture. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
This Property Is Condemned rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 4, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson