THE LANDLORD 1970 director: Hal Ashby; starring: Beau Bridges, Diana Sands, Lou Gossett, Jr., Pearl Bailey, Marki Bey, Lee Grant
Before the blaxploitation revolution kicked off with an explosion in 1971, there were films in the late 1960s and 1970 that helped to lay the groundwork for what was about to come. While many of these films – among them IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, PUTNEY SWOPE, and THE LIBERATION OF L. B. JONES – are not blaxploitation films in the strictest sense of the word, they have much in common with the genre we all know and love. One such film is THE LANDLORD, the seldom seen, but brilliant debut feature of editor-turned-director Hal Ashby, that has finally been released on blu-ray.
Beau Bridges stars as Elgar Enders, a rich, naïve man-child born with a silver spoon in his mouth. With the dream of creating a life for himself away from his conservative, domineering family, Elgar buys a rundown tenement building in the Brooklyn ghetto of Park Slope. Elgar’s plan is to kick out the residents of the building — all of whom are black, and delinquent in their rent payments — and turn the building into a luxury home for himself. But somewhere along the way Elgar’s dreams get waylaid as he becomes increasingly drawn into the lives of his tenants. Elgar falls in love with Lanie (SUGAR HILL’s Marki Bey), but that doesn’t stop him from having a brief, drunken affair with Francine (Diana Sands), a tenant with a husband in jail. When Francine’s husband, Copee (Lou Gossett), gets out of jail and finds out she’s pregnant with another man’s baby, he literally loses his mind.
Based on the novel by Kristen Hunter, with a screenplay by Bill Gunn (of GANGA & HESS fame), THE LANDLORD is a film that deserves its place among the great films of the 70s. There is no other time in the history of film — before of after the 70s — that would have seen a movie such as this deal with issues of gentrification and miscegenation, classism and racism, in the way this film does. Ashby and Gunn, while telling the story of a white man set against the backdrop of urban colonialism, boldly paint the supporting black characters as complex individuals. And while the common Hollywood cliché has the well-intentioned white man offering salvation to the noble savages, THE LANDLORD finds Elgar destroying everything in his path. Not only is he tearing down the walls of this building to create a dream house for himself, he is blindly destroying the lives of his tenants. And at the same time, Elgar himself is not going through this ordeal unscathed. During a scene when he finds himself throwing up after a night of hard drinking with his black ghetto neighbors, Elgar is puking up more than just the booze in his body. He is regurgitating all the years of comfort and privilege that has left him an empty man devoid of any real identity, purpose, or cares.
As a director, Hal Ashby was responsible for some of the best films of the 70s, including THE LAST DETAIL, HAROLD & MAUDE, and BEING THERE. With THE LANDLORD Ashby shows all the assured style and nuance that define his later work. Under his direction, the entire cast deliver stand out performances. Among the supporting actors who pop up throughout the film are several who would go on to make names for themselves in blaxploitation, including Lawrence Cook, Carl Lee, Marlene Clark, and Gloria Hendry.
While THE LANDLORD may not be a blaxploitation film in the strictest definitions of the word, it is certainly a film that was the direct result of the same cultural shifts and ideologies that would give birth to the genre. This is a wonderful film that deserves to be seen, studied and appreciated.