Sometimes you don’t need the bells and whistles. Sometimes you’re just happy that a film has become available again. The Landlord is one such movie, finally released this month onto a barebones disc here in the UK. Hal Ashby’s directorial debut did play British cinemas back in 1970, but since then not a single television showing, VHS release or DVD. Which is slightly odd, you may think, given the cult surrounding Ashby and, particularly, his seventies output. After all, everyone seems to love Harold and Maude (especially Criterion, you have just issued a Blu-ray), whilst most would agree that the run which encompassed The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There is really quite impressive. And yet, if you really wanted to catch up with The Landlord before now then only MGM’s US burn-on-demand service has held an answer – and I’m sure most self-respecting film fans would prefer a pressed disc over a DVD-R.
Ashby was already in his forties by the time he made the move into direction. By all accounts he’d lived quite the life already by this point, including three marriages and divorces (he would marry his fourth wife during the filming of The Landlord) and a rebellious childhood as the youngest in a large Mormon family in Utah. In 1950 he upped sticks to Hollywood where he slowly made his way up through the studios (including Universal and Disney) before establishing a working relationship with the editor Robert Swink. Ashby was his assistant on a number of major pictures – including The Big Country and The Diary of Anne Frank – and soon enough was able to make the jump himself. Tony Richardson’s The Loved One was his first gig, swiftly followed by a number of Norman Jewison pictures: The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. The result was one Oscar nomination and one Oscar win, a reputation as one of the finest cutters in the business, and a new working relationship, this time with Jewison. Indeed, Ashby also served as a producer on two of his pictures (Thomas Crown and Gaily, Gaily), whilst Jewison did much the same for The Landlord. In fact, it was Jewison who had initially acquired Kristin Hunter’s novel only to pass it onto his friend and editor when the opportunity to take on Fiddler on the Roof came up instead.
It’s tempting to think that Ashby’s age and experience plays a part in The Landlord’s assuredness. Perhaps not quite so assured as Harold and Maude, but certainly not the product of someone keen to impress. He treats Bill Gunn’s screenplay with the respect it deserves and, more importantly, handles its tonal shifts with ease. Essentially, The Landlord is a comedy – a sometimes sourly satirical look at race relations and the white upper-middle classes. A fresh-faced Beau Bridges plays Elgar Enders, the liberal son of a dysfunctional family who, at the age of 29, “runs away from home” by buying a tenement building in a nearby ghetto. He can hardly be blamed given his extremely conservative father (who takes to dressing as General Patton for the annual Spinal Meningitis Summer Ball), featherbrained mother and assortment of WASP-ish siblings and in-laws. Only his pot smoking sister seems remotely on his level, though she’s far from perfect: “Susan dear, you really cannot keep falling down the stairs like this.”
Elgar himself is hardly free from Gunn and Ashby’s sour eye. Despite the almost accidental charm – who could resist young Beau and his lavender ties? – this new landlord doesn’t go down too well with the new tenants. Of course there is a certain folly to Elgar’s purchasing a building full of African-Americans (this was before gentrification became prominent), but The Landlord refuses to boil its set-up down to farce. There is a touch of worldly sass versus doe-eyed naïveté initially, yet it grows into something more nuanced and more considered, albeit never afraid of absurdity at the same time. It’s worth remembering that Gunn (also an actor, playwright and novelist) would later write and director Ganja & Hess, one of the smartest of ‘Blaxploitation’ movies of the decade. Furthermore, Ashby’s cast of tenants is utterly superb and more than able to avoid easy one-dimensional characterisation. Diana Sands is arguably the standout; her silent moment with Bridges after their characters have spent a night together is heartbreakingly observed.
This really is an ensemble picture, chockfull of familiar faces with less than familiar names. (Memory jogs on the IMDb have a tendency reveal exceptional 1970s filmographies giving way to less than adventurous television work as the years worse on.) According to the Academy and those behind the Golden Globes it is Lee Grant who is the standout (in the role of Elgar’s mother) having been nominated for Best Supporting Actress by both, though it proves genuinely difficult to choose a favourite. Certainly, Bridges deserves some recognition, especially as The Landlord was only his second lead role (following Gaily, Gaily) after years of supporting turns and minor roles in episodic television. Much like many of Ashby’s subsequent main characters he doesn’t try too hard to be likeable, instead going by whatever pre-existing charms are present without papering over the deficiencies. In essence, Elgar is a bit of a tit, but you’ll warm to him all the same.
Beyond the impressive cast list praise should also be placed in the direction of Ashby’s behind the scenes team, especially as this was his debut. Gordon Willis earns one of his earliest cinematographer credits (and is assisted by no less than Michael Chapman), Hollywood veteran Robert Boyle contributes the wonderful production design (the tenement itself is terrific, right down to the trash-strewn backyard), and Al Kooper provides the score, abetted by the Staple Singers. Ashby complements the latter with a few modish touches of his own that reveal his recent history as one of the industry’s top editors. He throws in a flashy sex scene and is particularly keen on cutting away to absurd moments so as to punctuate the gags (more often than not these serve as literal thought bubbles whenever Grant fears the worse – or just the plain racist). Occasionally these moments come off, occasionally not, but there’s no denying Ashby’s confidence. Indeed, it’s often remarkable how he manages to hold this oddball concoction together, yet that’s exactly what he does. Producer David Bart happened to be watching and noticed this too, there and then deciding he’d found just the man to helm his own oddball concoction – Harold and Maude.
The Landlord comes to UK DVD courtesy of StudioCanal. This dual-layered Region 2 disc holds just the film itself; no extras whatsoever, not even a trailer. Despite the lack I’m sure that many will simply welcome its availability and the fact that StudioCanal haven’t messed up the transfer. The film arrives in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced) and mono soundtrack. There are spots of damage in places, most of it moderate, but generally speaking there’s nothing here to be disappointed by. Clarity can shift between scenes, but contrast levels are good and the colours never appear untoward. The soundtrack is in similarly fine shape with no issues to speak of, though do be aware that optional subtitles, English or otherwise, are not available. Those not expecting the grand treatment but rather hoping merely to see The Landlord in a decent condition should come away satisfied.
At last - Hal Ashby's directorial debut comes to UK DVD.