Directed by Sydney Pollack
Let's go on record here and now by saying that there are two things I love about the movies... adaptations of Tennessee Williams' plays and anything featuring Natalie Wood. It may to surprise you to learn that only one other Williams-based work appears in my 50 top favorite films although I am bowled over by them all. And I include no other Natalie Wood movies. Nope, no Splendor in the Grass, no West Side Story, no Gypsy, no Miracle on 34th Street, fine films all. This one is a bit of a surprise to be #44 on my list considering it is not as well-known as most of their other works and it wasn't much of a success with the critics and only a bit more with the public.
Tennessee Williams is said to have wanted his name taken off the credits. One would have to guess that it was due to "liberties" taken with the screen adaptation. Property was just a one-act play and to fill out the 110-minute length of the movie, it would require more writing. This is surely what the stuffy critics were referring to when they dismissed this fine film; they were likely Williams loyalists one and all. The film turned out to be basically two parts. But to suggest that all of this makes it an inferior film annoys me. It's an adaptation of a prior work and has every right to stand proudly on its own merit.
It was the wonderful director Sydney Pollack's second film and the first of seven times he would direct Redford. It was the second film Redford would make with Wood, the previous being Inside Daisy Clover. (Redford and Wood had actually gone to high school together but hadn't known one another. I don't understand how a gorgeous girl and a handsome guy had not spotted one another... in high school, no less. But I digress.) This Property Is Condemned was Wood's 40th film. Both Redford and Pollack credited Wood with much of getting them noticed in the film business.
It is been said that Natalie Wood was more of an instinctive actress than an intellectual one. She also probably needed the guidance of good directors more than some of her contemporaries might have. When she made this film she was going through heavy analysis, her life had become disconnected and she had just made two silly romantic comedies and wanted to distance herself from them.
She became attached to the project because it would require something of her dramatic abilities and because it was Tennessee Williams. Wood adored his work and longed to be one of his heroines on film. Blanche DuBois was her favorite and she thought Property's Alva might be as close as she would get. She knew Alva was going to be a creative challenge and she came away from the experience saying it was among the best work she'd ever done. And because I agree with that and because I was so nuts about her, This Property Is Condemned makes it onto my list.
The steamy photography by the revered James Wong Howe and the claustrophobic sets of William Kiernan help make this southern tale (and we know how I like those) as filling as fried chicken and black-eyed peas and yes, pass some of those yummy biscuits. The setting is early 1930s Mississippi and we are welcomed by Alva's fright of a younger sister, who idolizes her older sister, walking along railroad tracks in one of Alva's old sexy dresses. The sister being the narrator of the piece, produced another level of a mood for the film.
As the tale unfolds, Alva is just a bit of a tramp who dreams of getting out of her small town and away from under her domineering mother, played with guts by the fabulous Kate Reid. (Old Tennessee did love his domineering mamas... and sex-starved or sexually-repressed young southern belles.) Mama wants to marry Alva off to some geeky, well-connected, older man who repulses her, so that they can all experience better and more prosperous times.
Alva has, in fact, fallen for the handsome (guess who?) railroad official who has come to pretty much shut down much of the railroad which the raggedy-ass town depends on. When she gets confused over his intentions and also pissed off over her mother's intentions for her, she ups and marries Mama's own boyfriend, played warmly and sexily (not my usual adjectives for him) by Charles Bronson.
A scene where Alva reacts to her mother and the intended and Bronson at a table in the rooming house they run is the finest in the film. It is also the scene that sets in motion all the action that is to follow. Wood was apparently nervous about the scene, involving being liquored up, and Pollack recommended she actually have a drink or two. She pulled it off with sexy, wanton electricity and if there were a tribute to Wood as an actress and they showed important scenes from her films, this one should be included.
Redford does his job and leaves town for New Orleans at the same time Wood leaves Bronson the morning after the honeymoon. She knows it was a stupid mistake and wants to forget it. She, too, goes to New Orleans, the result of a dream-come-true.
She runs into Redford, they kiss and make up and share a small apartment together. Her tramp days behind her, she is striving to make a go of it and keep his house, fix his breakfast, get his slippers... all the things she believes good wives do. And we're happy for both of them; things are gonna be fine. She has done everything above-board except one thing. Oh yes, about that marriage to Bronson. Oops. And no divorce. Oops. When Redford presses her on their getting married, she fesses up. Maybe the truth sets you free in some circles, but Tennessee Williams (or whoever) didn't know that. He did know how to make his heroines suffer.
Redford dashes out of the apartment in a huff and Wood leaves shortly thereafter to find him, to say she's sorry, in screaming-down rain. She isn't able to find him and the last time we see her, she is crying in the rain.
Next we have rejoined the ragamuffin sister on the railroad tracks with overgrown vegetation lining them and the rooming house now looking vacant and dilapidated. She is telling her friend that Alva died of a lung affection. Does she mean pneumonia? Well, no matter because whenever my partner or I have upper respiratory issues, we say we have a lung affection.
And it was over. It started with the lovely song Wish Me a Rainbow and it ended with it, too. In between was a very good dramatic story, based on at least in part by a fabulous American playwright and starring two of the most glamorous people Hollywood has ever known.
If you haven't seen This Property Is Condemned, it's on DVD. Treat yourself. Take a peek:
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