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At the age of twenty-nine, Elgar Enders "runs away" from home. This running away consists of buying a building in a black ghetto in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Initially his intention is to evict the black tenants and convert it into a posh flat. But Elgar is not one to be bound by yesterday's urges, and soon he has other thoughts on his mind. He's grown fond of the black tenants and particularly of Fanny, the wife of a black radical; he's maybe fallen in love with Lanie, a mulatto girl; he's lost interest in redecorating his home. Joyce, his mother has not relinquished this interest and in one of the film's most hilarious sequences gives her Master Charge card to Marge, a black tenant and appoints her decorator. Written by
witty and with enough emotional depth and intelligence to carry the subject matter; good debut for Ashby
As one of the scruffy underdog filmmakers of the 1970s- who's career unfortunately faltered in the 80s before his untimely death at 59- Hal Ashby was good at taking a set of characters and a particular idea or theme and getting under the surface just enough to make a mark, while also keeping it an oddly entertaining and accessible as a picture for the art houses. Also, it shows Ashby coming out of his cocoon of editing jobs (he even won an Oscar, for Jewison's In the Heat of the Night) by giving the Landlord a very particular rhythm. Many times he'll just let a scene play out, giving the actors the freedom to work with the script their way, and then other times he'll implement montage- or just a subliminal cut-away (or not so subliminal, as Lee Grant envisions an African tribe going to the Park Slope building, and a whole pack of black babies upon hearing about a little 'accident' her step-son caused late in the film).
I was really struck by how he uses experimentation for equal uses of humor, abstraction, and to just feel out the mood of the character(s) in the scene. Like when Brides runs to meet with Lanie at her school, and it's inter-cut with images from Fanny at her apartment, and Lanie, and a couple of other things. It can be called 'European'- and Ashby was an admitted fan of Godard's- but it feels unique to the sensibility of the production and the 'radical' feeling of the period. Meanwhile, Ashby has the best photography back up a first-time director could ask for: Gordon Willis and Michael Chapman, who give the film a look sometimes of lightness, especially when Elgar is at the family home and the walls are all a bland white, or seem to be; then other times they light it darker, like in a more intimate setting like Elgar and Lanie out by the beach at night, or just when at the Park Slope apartment. A scene especially with Elgar and Fanny is effective, not simply because she actually comments on how the red light makes her look a certain way- it's the timing of the actors, the awkward but strong sexual tension, and the red light, and the soft soul music coming up, that makes it one of the best scenes Ashby's ever filmed, thanks to the right team.
If the style verges on being a little "dated" here and there, like in the opening minutes as Elgar talks to the camera and says what he intends to do with the tenement, or those extreme close-ups of Elgar kissing with Lanie (which are quite striking on their own), its attitude towards the pure human problems of race haven't diminished that much. I liked seeing Bridges, who is spot-on as the total naive future yuppie who's heart is in the right place but confused how to really go about it as the new landlord, interact with the other apartment dwellers, their 'welcoming' by chasing him away with a flowered pot in his hands, or at the party when after getting him good and drunk tell him what it's really all about in first-person takes. And most of all it's funny and challenging to see, especially during a tense period around 1969 when it was filmed, how essential decency on either side of the race coin could get complicated by love and lust, of the rich family understandably not understanding how Elgar could go through this- not to mention the eventual 'mixed' dating and the pregnancy- and at the same time the tenees never totally knowing why, aside from foolish design ambitions, wanted to run the place to start with.
The best laughs end up coming from the awkward moments, and the obvious ones, as the subtle moments are meant to be more quiet and the 'big' laughs to come from the interaction of not just in terms of race but class; watch as everyone in the building uses the drapes from Joyce (Lee Grant in a well deserved Oscar nom performance) as clothes and head-dressing, or when Joyce has some pot liquor with Marge, who knows her better than her own family probably does. And who can resist the NAACP joke? Or a throwaway joke about dressing up as a historical figure for a costume ball? Ashby and his writers (both screenwriter and novelist were African-Americans) know not to slam every point home either, which uplifts the comedy to an honest playing field, which means that when a scene like the quasi-climax when Copee finds out about the pregnancy and flips out with an ax at Elgar it's not really all that jokey, when it easily could've been played as such for an exploitation effect. Only the very ending, which feels complicated by a sort of need to tidy things up with Elgar, Janie and the baby, feels sort of forced (not helped by the end song, not too ironic, called God Bless the Children).
But as it stands, the Landlord is provocative fun, if that makes sense, as it works as cool satire, led by sure-fire performances (Bridges has rarely been this good at being true to a mostly unsympathetic character), and it points the way for a career that the director would have where oddball slices of life wouldn't mean there wasn't larger points being made. It's one of the best bets as an obscure find a film-buff can have from 1970.
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