To know the work of Warren Oates is to love Warren Oates. Odds are you probably do know Oates’ work, too, even if you don’t realize it. Oates nailed down roughly 50 roles over the course of his too-short career, which spanned from 1959 to 1982; he kept busy, putting a particular emphasis on Westerns in classics like Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, and The Hired Hand. But he appeared in 1970s arthouse masterworks, too, notably Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and his performance as Sgt. Hulka in Stripes is indispensable. Rather than call him chameleonic, call him versatile. There’s little Oates couldn’t, and didn’t, do with his gifts as an actor.
Through these movies, we get a patchwork idea of who Oates was as an actor – easygoing, flinty, severe, but unfailingly human. Now, thanks to The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Leslie Stevens, we can take another view of Oates in 2016 with Private Property, a mislaid 1960 thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock, recently restored and re-released by Cinelicious Pics as part of the Center’s Oates Retrospective (which ran from July 1st to July 4th); the film shows us Oates as a man-child whose gentle exterior blends with a violent streak and an utter lack of self-awareness. He is not the hero of Private Property, per se, or more to the point he is not the film’s lead. The burden of the lead falls on the shoulders of Corey Allen, while the de facto heroine is Kate Manx, Stevens’ wife of two years at the time the picture premiered.
Manx plays Ann, a devoted, lusty, neglected housewife whose kindly dope of a husband, Roger (Robert Ward), is in desperate need of either a libido or a clue. He’s a loving guy, but innuendos bounce off him as bullets do Superman. A pre-lunch chat between the two would build to primal, flesh-slapping sex in your workaday porno, but in Private Property, flirtation and suggestion only leaves her disappointed with a handful of wasted ice cubes. Appropriately, that’s how Stevens conducts the bulk of the film; he likes to tease his viewers, ushering us toward expected, naughty conclusions before taking a sharp right turn into grimy, exploitative territory, when Duke and Boots (Allen and Oates, respectively) end up squatting in the empty mansion next to hers.
You can guess that their designs are less than pure, Duke’s doubly so. Both men want her, but Duke lies to Boots, promising to help his friend get in her good graces. This promise is made in at the start of Private Property, when the pair sits at a gas station, spies Ann, and carjack an unsuspecting passerby using charm first, threats second; Duke, it seems, has stolen women out from under Boots’ nose in the past, so Duke claims he’ll make up for it by warming up Ann for him. (If you wake up and smell the subtext, of course, their argument about who got “the last one” sounds an awful lot like confession to rape.) The drifters, like Ann and Roger, comprise their own coupling of sorts; they bicker and squabble, and once they settle into the abandoned house by Ann’s, they sit down for dinner together. (Boots cooks. Duke criticizes Boots’ cooking. Their easy domesticity would be disarming if not for our knowledge of their prurient objectives.)
They’re separated by the gap of a dining room table, but where Stevens gives literal visualization to the divide between them, he articulates the divide between Roger and Ann through his script. Even when they’re set right next to one another discussing their future housing plans over their supper, there’s no intimacy with Roger and Ann, or at least not the intimacy she craves. You get the sense that behind the camera, Stevens is having a wicked laugh at the juxtapositions struck in both his film’s duos, of status, of sentiment, of lawfulness; whatever Duke and Boots lack in common with Roger and Ann, they make up for in the absolute vacuum that is their existence. Neither pair enjoys much by way of purpose or substance in their lives.
This, of course, is the foundation of Ann’s unhappiness – the absence of real, tangible affection from her husband. Maybe he really does care about her, maybe she’s just another signifier of his status and success. Either way, Stevens captures the ache Ann feels at her romantic disconnect from Roger better through image than he does through dialogue; even nestled in the hills above Los Angeles, or set against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, Private Property is filmed with a philosophy of confinement. Windows are a recurring motif throughout, acting as conduits for longing, whether prurient or desperate. Those images reinforce how trapped the characters are by their prejudices, their ill-intentions, their indifference, and their feelings of isolation. The branches of a wicker ornament obscure a shot of Ann and Duke dancing together, giving the appearance of a cage wrapped about them as they tentatively explore their infatuations with one another. (It’s true that Duke first approaches Ann to violate her, but he also becomes very clearly lovestruck by her.)
It’s a class war where neither side is smart enough to admit their own boorishness. Roger might not be a rapist, but his dismissive, possessive attitude toward Ann is no less appalling in its casual sexism; meanwhile, Duke and Boots don’t care that their perspectives on women are roundly regressive. All three men just want what they want without having to worry about the feelings of the person they want it from. Ward plays Roger as aloof, Allen makes Duke into an imbalanced and smitten schoolboy, and Oates, sitting on the sidelines, is the film’s Lennie Small. It may be equally surprising and unsurprising that Oates’ performance is the best in the entire movie despite his lack of screen time relative to Allen and Manx; he’s a terrific actor with great presence, the sort of person who can leave an impression just by standing off to the side and staring at the action occurring around him. He’s a sponge absorbing Private Property‘s reluctant desire and wanton salaciousness. All told, the film is minor Oates, but it’s a major find from its era, a kinky exercise in tension with as much love for Alfred Hitchcock as for voyeuristic excitement.