Beau Bridges Stars in the On-point Racially Challenging yet Comical Directorial Debut of Hal Ashby.



The glorious uneasiness of the 1970 racial-issues comedy The Landlord is rendered all the more glorious by its distinction as Hal Ashby’s first film as director.  This is the man who would soon go on to claim the greatest directorial run of that decade.  (Harold and MaudeThe Last DetailShampooBound for GloryComing Home, and Being There.  Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang). Seeing The Landlord now, however, it is seriously apparent how little has shifted in terms of its thematic subject matter, black and white relations in America.  One thing that has shifted, however, might be a certain uneasiness that comes with the notion of a white filmmaker taking on this topic.

Though a young and fresh-faced Beau Bridges makes for quite the terminally Caucasian star of this movie with a hapless white son of privilege at its center, its overall perspective is indisputably African American.  Today, it’s likely that The Landlord would be shelved until a director that fits all the prescribed criteria for who should get to tell it could be thoroughly satisfied.  Such decisions tend to be based on saving face and projecting an image of inclusion as opposed to legitimate caring about minority people groups being accurately represented.  More likely then, the film would simply never be considered for production.  It’s undeniably a hot potato; more a Spike Lee joint of today, but a joint-smoking Hal Ashby vehicle of 1970.  

Back then, the unfortunate fact is that directors of studio films in Hollywood were mostly if not entirely white males. Which is why all concerned parties should be grateful that within that pool, Ashby was handed the opportunity.  The Midwesterner Ashby, amid the burning and rage of the civil rights movement of the time, was somehow able to lock in on the sentiment and themes that dominates Bill Gunn’s screenplay- itself an adaptation of a 1966 novel of the same title by Kristin Hunter.  Both a true social progressive in a moment that desperately needed them, and an unconventional filmmaker by way of his previous career as a film editor (editors think about storytelling differently while shooting than directors hailing from other film trades), he was the right grease that producer Norman Jewison (who had planned to direct this, but opted to hand it off while remaining in a producing capacity so he could go make Fiddler on the Roof) had to lubricate this seemingly challenging project.

Hunter has described her chosen perspective of the time as an African American author as “objective.”   She clarified, “…that is, sympathetic to both whites and blacks, and seeing members of both groups from a perspective of irony and humor against the wider backdrop of human experience as a whole. Since about 1968 my subjective anger has been emerging, along with my grasp of the real situation in this society.”  Bill Gunn (Personal Problems) was right there with her.  

The film follows twenty-nine-year-old Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders (Bridges) who decides one day to leave the sterile confines of his family’s well-to-do estate (replete with minority butlers and servants) for the chance to own and run his own Brooklyn apartment building.  The place may be a ghetto unto itself when he acquires it, but that doesn’t squelch his big dumb vision for the place.  His plans teeter precariously between cartoony and ignorant, involving misspent ridiculousness like “a big son-of-a-bitchin’ chandelier” hanging over the dingy and deteriorating central staircase.  Having his fancy convertible ransacked on the street and being held at arrow-point by a radical denizen played by Lou Gossett Jr. do little to immediately clear his eyes to what he’s gotten his white-suited self into.  

Only as the film goes on does he begin to relate to his new tenants in a way that is something other than bumbling condescension.  Soon enough, he falls in love with an African American girl (Marki Bey) whose light skin in a dark club is enough to initially mislead him into assuming that she’s a white girl there to help the underprivileged.  Or something. No, ho-ho…

His garish and ever-gloved mother (a spot-on Lee Grant) isn’t happy about any of this, but his confession of having fallen in love with “a negro girl” is enough to send her on a private golf cart ride, giving him a good liberal-yet-racist taking-to.  (Before there was Get Out, there was The Landlord).  Elgar’s misadventures continue into black miseducation course-correction and even fathering a child with a different tenant.  All the while, the building continues to fall apart on his watch, forcing him to put his grandiose plans aside and take up things like- yikes- plumbing.  Sisyphus had his boulder; Elgar Enders has his uninstalled toilet bowl.  As dense as he is, Bridges plays him with wonderful sympathy.

This Blu-ray special edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is a must-own for cinephiles.  Not only is it a long-needed spruced-up release of the first film by a vital and rightly beloved director, its audio and video quality are rather astonishing.  Shot by the great cinematographer Gordon Willis, The Landlord at times wields a primal grittiness in its urban destitute.  Likewise, the scenes that take place in Enders’ family estate are just the right exposure of off-whitewhitewhite.  It’s been documented that the delicate film stock of this era coupled with the precise styles of cinematography that were emerging render films of the 1970s particularly difficult to restore and accurately present after the fact.  The look and feel on this disc altogether capture all the extremes and nuances therein.

While this “Special edition” Blu-ray lacks the usual Kino Lorber audio commentary track, the three separate video interview featurettes more than make up for it.  Producer Greg Carson has interviewed three of the film’s key players especially for this release, starting with star Beau Bridges, who’s sporting an African shirt he wore in the film all those years ago.  Next is actress Lee Grant, who recalls the honor of being summoned back to a Norman Jewison project after her great role in his landmark In the Heat of the Night (which Ashby edited).  Finally, Jewison himself is interviewed, recollecting more of the ins and outs of giving Ashby his big break as director, and his working relationship with the late filmmaker.  Each interview runs about thirty minutes and is very well presented.  The disc also has a trailer for the film, as well as a few others.

Ashby might not have been the only socially progressive filmmaker in America working to shine a light on the country’s racial injustices and exploring the anger therein.  Brian De Palma, also just hitting the scene, served up the incendiary Hi, Mom! also in 1970.  That film, while independent versus The Landlord’s United Artists affiliation, is a far more bombastic and loopier affair.  Ashby, by contrast, keeps things rooted in the recognizably raw nerve of the moment.  His bursts of experimentation in the editing greatly underscore this while not cultivating aggressive dissonance.  Interestingly, based upon shots of screenplay pages in the bonus features, Gunn envisioned many of the film’s bold inserts from the beginning.  

The Landlord is nothing if not a tightly realized tightrope-walk of ideal creative collaboration, youthful spark, and frustrating truth-saying.  (Never mind that horse-crappy utterly-nonrepresentative poster, which is utilized here as cover art.  Please).  Clearly America at the time didn’t take to heart The Landlord’s messages of white privilege versus black survival mode.  The film’s very mixed response at the time only goes to show that even then, certain people didn’t go to movies with an open mind to hear what’s being said but instead chose to get all pissed off that it was being said at all.  Fifty years later, the same garbage and ignorance demonstrated by the Enders clan reigns more strongly than ever.  This Blu-ray release is a small but pertinent light in that that oppressive darkness.  It’s time to follow through with its renewed lease on life.