Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – The Landlord (1970)


Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is a spoiled 29 year old from a wealthy family who is still living at home with his parents in an affluent suburb of New York. He decides it is time to “make his mark” by purchasing a rundown building in a black neighborhood in inner-city Brooklyn. He plans to evict the tenants and have the building renovated into posh flats. He starts having second thoughts though as he gets to know the people and learns of their struggles. He begins a relationship with one of the women (Diana Sands) and soon he is working to upgrade the building as well as trying to enlighten his racist, snobbish parents (Walter Brooke, Lee Grant).

The Enders character is a perfect microcosm of the 70s when idealism and efforts to improve inner-city life, as well as some of the harsh realities that came with it, were at an all-time high. Director Hal Ashby’s first film is full of strong gritty visuals from the rundown, graffiti-laden buildings to the garbage strewn lawns. Everything was filmed on-location and you get a vivid taste of the black experience. It is boosted even more by the detailed cinematography of Gordon Willis, which makes the most of the natural lighting and making you feel like you are right there. The honest no-holes-barred approach is terrific. It perfectly captures the mood and feel of its era. I was surprised for a first time director, even a really good one like Ashby, how well-constructed and technically sharp this was, which could have some link to the fact that it was produced by another great director, Norman Jewison, whom I’m sure lent a lot of input.

Initially I found the Elgar character to be off-putting, but that could have been intentional. We first see him sitting on his lawn chair being served a drink by a black servant while talking about his great plan and looking like a spoiled, snot- nosed kid who has been coddled all his life. The one scene that I remembered from this film when I first saw it over 20 years ago is when he gets out of his Volkswagen bug to look at the building while wearing a tacky looking Pat Boone white dress suit. When some of the black men sitting on the building’s front steps tease him a little, he immediately panics and runs eight blocks down the street in terror even though no one was chasing him. However, he does start to grow on you as the film progresses. I liked the fact that he faces adversity and is not scared away. He learns to persist and adapt. He genuinely starts to care about the people and backs up what he says to the extent that he singlehandedly carries new toilets one-by-one from the hardware store to the apartment building when the plumbing breaks down in an amusing vignette. He isn’t afraid to tell off his arrogant parents when he needs to and his definition of NAACP is pretty funny. It is satisfying to see him mature, learning that instituting change is not easy and things are the way they are for a reason. He eventually is forced to confront his own limitations, but becomes a stronger person for it. This is without a doubt Bridges best performance to date.

Of course this film is loaded with a lot of great performances. Pearl Bailey is a gem as one of the building’s feisty, older women tenants who is the first to befriend Elgar. Her awkward visit with Elgar’s equally feisty mother is considered the film’s highlight by many viewers and critics. I also loved the look she gives Elgar at the very end when he tries to wave goodbye to her. The gorgeous Diana Sands is also outstanding playing the role of Francine who has an ill-fated affair with Elgar. She shows just the right balance of being sexy and still serious and it was a shame that just a few years after this film was made she ended up dying of cancer at the young age of 39. Susan Anspach is fun in one of her early roles as Elgar’s pot smoking sister. The performance though that leaves the strongest impression is that of Lee Grant who is hilariously hammy as Elgar’s priggish mother.

When I first saw this film I came away thinking that it was uneven and a bit bipolar. It runs most of the way as a gentle, quirky satire filled with goofy cutaways, but then ends with a very stark and frightening scene with Elgar being chased down the grimy hallways of the building by Francine’s angry ax-waving husband (Louis Gossett Jr.) when he finds out that Elgar has gotten his wife pregnant. The scene is ugly and intense and a far cry from the rest of the film’s gentle tone. Yet upon second viewing I think this scene works and was necessary. It makes a good statement about how volatile people can be who are forced to live in squalor as well showing how easily people, even with the best intentions, can get in over their heads when they don’t fully appreciate or understand the situation that they are getting into it.

The side story involving a mixed-race woman (Marki Bey) who falls in love with Elgar is solid as well and gives the viewer a keen insight as to how difficult it is for someone who can’t seem to be accepted by either race. The language and conversations are tough and vulgar, but always laced with realism.

My only complaint is the portrayal of the white characters who are buffoonish and overly idiotic even for satire. I thought the idea of having them still use black servants was over-done, but then when one of them shows up at a party wearing blackface it was truly overkill. I thought it was unfair and unrealistic in the way that the film worked so hard to give depth to its black characters, but then turns around and, with the exception of Elgar, paints the whites as nothing more than broad caricatures.

The Landlord has never been released on DVD, but it is now available for streaming for Netflix subscribers. I would suggest this film for anyone who enjoys an intelligent comedy-drama with something to say. It is also a great chance to see young up-and-coming actors. This includes Hector Elizondo as well as comedian Robert Klein. You can also get a very quick glimpse of Samuel L. Jackson who appears briefly in an uncredited role as a minister near the end.

My Rating: 8 out of 10 stars


Last Time on Rewind: Privilege (1967)
Coming Up Next: Lady in Cement (1968)


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