A lot of directors get labelled as being one of a kind’, but in the case of Hal Ashby it really was true. With his hippie spirit and amazing eye for human connections, he made wonderful films like Harold And Maude, Shampoo, Coming Home, Bound For Glory and Being There. However it all started with his debut movie, 1970’s The Landlord.
A young Beau Bridges stars as Elgar Enders, a 29-year-old from a very well-to-do family who’s been feeling increasingly stifled living at home with his overbearing mother. He buys a house on a run down, inner city street, with the plan of getting the tenants out, doing it up and helping with the gentrification of the area. However he soon finds the tenants aren’t interested in leaving, and Elgar begins to find a new life there far from the one he grew up in. He even starts to date a mixed-race woman, something his mother is less than impressed by.
Of Ashby’s 70s movies, The Landlord is undoubtedly the least known, partly because to modern eyes its take on race relations is problematic. Although seen as incredibly progressive at the time and one of the few movies to deal seriously (although comedically) with the American class wars and the endemic racism of supposedly liberal white people, its treatment of urban black life is slightly difficult. Particularly early on the inner city African-Americans are uncivilised, devious and pretty much all criminals, and when them one charges in dressed in African tribal clothes and threatens the white man with a bow and arrow, it’s difficult not to feel that while it may have been a step forward at the time, nowadays it verges on being a tad racist itself.
Things certainly improve as it goes along, as while there may be problems with some of the urban black characters, the posh white people are even worse, utterly oblivious to how offensive their attitudes are, and feeling poor people are lesser beings than they are. Elgar finds himself trapped between these two worlds, desperately trying to find a life for himself outside the rich environment he’s come to loath, but treated with suspicion or outright disdain by the people on the city streets. As he spends more time with his new tenants, his horizons are broadened as he realises life is far more complex that his upbringing suggested. Although it would have been easy for the film to reach easy conclusions for Elgar’s journey, it’s actually rather complex and intriguing, although it never really feels it’s gotten to the heart of what it’s trying to say.
The Landlord is a film that has many of the hallmarks Ashby became known for, from playful visual asides to a wonderful knack for telling story through subtle editing. However there’s a sense that while he knows what he wants to do with The Landlord, he hasn’t quite perfected how to get these ideas across to an audience. That said there are a lot of positives, with a script that certainly throws up a lot of ideas, even if it doesn’t deal with all of them successfully. The cast is also superb, with singer/actress Pearl Bailey wonderful as Marge; Lee Grant giving an Oscar-nominated performance as Elgar’s snotty, controlling and hypocritical mother; and Beau Bridge wonderfully wide-eyed and innocent (and surprisingly good-looking) as the slightly floundering Elgar himself.
Although not a complete triumph, The Landlord is still a good movie and an early entry in the New Hollywood canon, coming just before the likes of Scorsese and Coppola helped revolutionise American cinema. Ashby’s early movies actually had a very important role pointing the way forward for many young filmmakers for a new, socially conscious and yet still commercial way to make movies, and he himself is one of the most vital, talented and perhaps slightly underrated filmmakers of the period. The Landlord may be Ashby before he’d completely honed his talents, but it’s still a very good movie and well worth searching out if you’re a fan of Hal or indeed 70s cinema in general.
Overall Verdict: It’s treatment of urban black people may be problematic to modern eyes, but The Landlord is still an entertaining, intriguing and often funny film, taking an early (if not always successful) stab at getting under the skin of post-Civil Rights race/class relations.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac