Thursday, January 15, 2015

This Property Is Condemned

As part of Robert Redford's turn as TCM's Star of the Month this month, I got around to watching This Property Is Condemned back on Tuesday night. It's listed as being available at the TCM Shop and on Amazon, so I figure I can do a full-length post on the subject.

One might guess from the title of the movie that it's going to deal with a property that is condemned either moreally, legally in the sense that it's unfit for habitation, or both. One would be right. Of course, this is all given away by the fact that the movie is told in flashback. Willie Starr (played by Mary Badham, whom you'll best remember as Scout To Kill a Mockingbird), is shown at the beginning of the film walking along the rail of an abandoned railroad track wearing a tattered dress that's two sizes too big for her. Just when she's about to fall off the rail, she spies a boy about her age flying a kite. They're both truant from school, although this is the Depression, so they could both just as easily be dropouts. The boy asks Willie about her life, and Willie points to a dilapidated, condemned boarding house just off the tracks, saying that her wholf family used to live there, and what a happening place it used to be. Cue the flashback....

A couple of years earlier, but definitely in the grip of the Great Depression, Owen Legate (Robert Redford) is up front with the engineer on a train that's about to go through the town of Dodson, MS. This train doesn't stop there, so Owen has to jump out when the train slows down, which he does near the aforementioned boarding house. He shows up at that boarding house, where he meets Willie. Willie is looking for her mother Hazel (Kate Reid), since she's the responsible manager of the place, and because everybody else is looking for Ma too. It's Ma's birthday, and Johnson (John Harding), one of the boarders, has organized a birthday party for Ma. Owen takes a room for a week, but is very mysterious about who he is or why he's here.

Meanwhile, Wilie has an older sister Alva (Natalie Wood) who is the star of the movie and the star of the boarding house. She looks lovely, so all of the men, who are workers at the local rail yard, want her. Hazel, for her part, is trying to get Alva to be more sociable with the boarders more or less in the way that Barbara Stanwyck's character in Baby Face was being prostituted before the place burned down and Stanwyck and her friend hopped that train to New York and used men to get the things they want. The only real difference is there's not quite so much implied sex here; if anything Alva would be winding up as more of a mistress to Johnson. Not that Alva particularly likes this kind of life. She dreams of New Orleans, but if nything she only has unrealistic plans. Still, she meets Owen and senses something different in him from all the other men.

Oh, there certainly is something different. Owen is from the head office, and his job is to come into towns where the railroad is no longer really a viable concern, and figure out who among the railyard workers should be fired. That would explain why he's been so mysterious about what he's doing in Dodson. He kind of likes Alva, too, except that he's not fond of her fantasies. Things change, however, when everybody learns why Owen is really in town....

The movie was based loosely on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, who supposedly disliked what the scriptwriters (including Francis Ford Coppola) did to his play when they wrote the screenplay. When Robert Osborne did the introduction and said that it was based on a Williams play, I was a bit apprehensive since I find that a little Williams goes a long, long way. In fact, the first two thirds or so of the movie aren't that bad in terms of plot, except for the fact that the movie is told in flashback (and since one of the first shots of Alva shows her wearing the dress that Willie is wearing in her opening scene, you can make an educated guess about what happens to Alva). The movie really veers into melodrama, though, once Alva hops on a train to New Orleans to follow Owen there. The bigger problem for me was the 1960s styling. Natalie Wood's character, especially her hairstyles, look like they're from the 1960s instead of the 1930s, almost to the point that at times you wonder if she's in a different movie. But for me an even bigger problem was the camera work. Hollywood must have changed cameras sometime in the early 1960s, because the new cameras could zoom and move more freely, and dammit, cinematographers were going to show us that the camera could do these things. In the case of This Property Is Condemned, it makes the camerawork look intrusive at times. There's one scene of Owen and Alva, either in the garden or on her abandoned train carriage, where the camera goes all the way around Owen and lights him obtrusively. And then there's one of Alva on the train to New Orleans where the camera pulls way, way out to a panoramic shot that I found pointles.

Overall, there's a fair bit to recommend to This Property Is Condemned. You may just find it a bit maddening at times.

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