The first movie review of 2014 is this sultry Tennessee Williams tale of freedom and sexuality. It’s every Williams movie rolled into one. Despite a third act slump the movie never recovers from, This Property Is Condemned has the best performances from Natalie Wood and Robert Redford I’ve witnessed. Williams’ work wasn’t always possible to translate well, and he hated what was done with this play, but burgeoning icon Sydney Pollack crafted a fine film about lust covered in railroad grime.
Owen Legate (Redford) is a railroad official tasked with laying off workers in the small town of Dodson, Mississippi. While staying in the town’s lone boarding house he meets Alva Starr (Wood), the town flirt whose affections are sought after by every red-blooded Dodson man. When Alva falls for Owen it threatens to undo everything her scheming mother (Kate Reid) has planned for her.
No one brings up Natalie Wood and Robert Redford when discussing classic film couples. The pair only worked on two pictures together (this and the equally flirtatious Inside Daisy Clover), but they brought out the best in each other. Watching Redford in standalone fare he comes off as stiff and regal, on another level with all those around him. Opposite Wood, Redford sparkles; he plays a straight-laced authoritarian at the beginning, but comes alive upon Wood’s arrival. Woods sexuality is potent, and her pairing with Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass remains unchallenged, but there a difference when it comes to Redford and Wood. In This Property, Owen bursts Alva’s bubble about her life, telling her she isn’t special and is used by her mother. Conversely, Alva is Owen’s equal in love and by losing her he isn’t even important to the story, disappearing with ten minutes of screentime to spare.
Maybe they worked so well together because their beauty overshadowed their potential early on. Redford’s matinée idol looks threatened to shoehorn him into pretty boy roles and he spent awhile asserting himself as a serious dramatic thespian. Similarly, Wood struggled to escape the box of child stardom and be respected as an adult. This Property Is Condemned is about escaping the confining strictures of small-town life, or a stifling career, and finding freedom within conformity, and Redford and Wood both know something about that. Alva is an infinitely more interesting character than Owen, but because of the spellbinding chemistry between the leads following their love story is seductive and intoxicating.
Natalie Wood changed her persona throughout the sixties and into the seventies, but This Property Is Condemned is the first, for me, of Wood showcasing an overtly sexual character. Alva is the town flirt who isn’t coy at all about expressing her desires to others. The only person she stumbles around is Owen because he understands the pressures she’s under to be desirable. Alva’s mother is practically her pimp, prostituting her daughter to be nice to a local man because he can take care of her family. Themes prevalent in Williams’ work including fears of instability – monetary, mortality, etc. – are present, as well as the fears of how unbridled sexuality can be misconstrued. Wood’s drunken sequence in the bar – a scene Wood was actually drunk while shooting – is her best, as she lasciviously propositions her mother’s boyfriend, J.J. (Charles Bronson). Bronson plays a lecher, but he’s an actor perfect for Williams’ work, especially his bulky brutish appearance. I would have enjoyed enhancing his role and creating a triangle with the characters of Alva and Owen, but as it stands Bronson is just as fantastic in the movie.
The third act is where This Property Is Condemned falters. Once Alva escapes small-town life and goes to New Orléans to reunite with Owen, the movie slows to a crawl. Part of the movie’s heat is in the unconsummated romance between the pair and it clashing with Alva’s past. By reuniting the two, the movie becomes a quaint romance with no fire or momentum. It isn’t until Alva’s past catches up with her that the plot picks up. Mary Badham of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, plays Alva’s little sister and she is the weakest link in the cast. Badham was fourteen in the film, transitioning into adult roles herself, but plays the requisite all-seeing child who details the story. It’s a role too close to Scout, but with no true integration into events; she sees things, even moments she wasn’t there for, but never changes them or becomes a part of them.
Overall, This Property Is Condemned is weak Tennessee Williams, but even the weakest plays turn into decent movies. Wood has never been more adult than she is here, and her chemistry with Redford is electrical, inspiring the audience to dream of future collaborations which failed to evolve. The third act is messy, but the pace is so quick there’s little time to dwell.