Inspired by a short story by Tennessee Williams, This Property is Condemned (1966) sports an amazing cast starring Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, and Mary Badham. This film–only the second ever to be directed by the soon-to-be legendary director/actor Sydney Pollack–tells the story of a small railroad town devastated by layoffs during the Great Depression.
I don’t know whether it’s the writing or the acting, but this is one of those films that allows you to feel things so deeply: the heat of the summer night, the desperation in the characters’ struggles, even the pain in Robert Redford’s bloody lip.
The film begins with two children playing on the train tracks. A young girl, Willie Starr (Badham), explains to a boy that she is living in a condemned property, hiding from a welfare woman. She tells him that the property was formerly a place of grand entertainment, with her sister starring as the most popular woman in town, the “main attraction.”
In the next scene, we flash back in time to meet Owen Legate (Redford) as he rides into the town on a train. We are given evidence that Owen may not have the best intentions in visiting the town when the engineer asks him, “Doing the things that you do, how do you sleep?”
Owen puts out his cigarette and cooly replies, “On my stomach,” before jumping off the train before it stops.
When Owen arrives, he soon meets Willie and her beautiful and very popular sister, Alva (Wood). A birthday party is underway for the girls’ mother, and Alva is hit on by nearly every man at the party. Much to Alva’s dismay, her mother wants her to spend time with a middle-aged, wealthy businessman, Mr. Johnson. Her mother fears that he will stop residing in the expensive room in her boarding house, and she wants her daughter to be rich: “I told you Mr. Johnson would come across as something good …you want other things, nice things. You are gonna get it. And be rich and travel. Your mama’s gonna see that you get the jewels. Memphis, New Orleans, maybe even New York. Just think of the people you’re gonna meet, the men … The way things are beginning to look, we’ve got to make use of the things at hand, and one of the things at hand is Mr. Johnson.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, Alva becomes quite interested in the handsome Owen, although their meeting was less that idyllic:
Alva: “I’m even famous in my own way.”
Owen: “Oh, I don’t doubt that.”
Alva: “Lots of men think I’m–”
Owen: “Miss Starr, I’ve been traveling since six o’clock this morning. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow to do some work. Now if you come with the room, if you’re included with the two meals, then let’s get on with it. Let’s not play around.”
Alva: “What do you think I am?”
After attempting to slap him, she storms out of the room, declaring, “I hope you suffocate!”
Nevertheless, Alva continues to be attracted to Owen, regardless of his rudeness to her. When Alva explains to Owen that she spends time with Mr. Johnson as a kindness to a lonely old man, he all but calls her a prostitute. When Alva discovers that Owen is in town in order to lay off many of the railroad workers, she confronts him. Although she screams at him, the two end up spending the night together. The two seem to fall in love. Owen even buys Alva a ticket so that she can join him when he leaves for New Orleans.
But when Owen overhears Alva’s mother (falsely) explaining to someone that the family is moving to Memphis, he assumes this means that Alva has agreed to be financially supported by Mr. Johnson. Things take a bad turn for the couple when he calls her a whore and leaves town. In a drunken stupor, Alva marries her mother’s boyfriend, JJ (Charles Bronson). Upon waking, however, she steals the money in her new husband’s wallet and uses the train ticket to find Owen in New Orleans. The two reconcile and live happily in New Orleans. She buys conservative clothes for herself, meets him after work each day, and has dinner ready for him each night. He buys candlesticks to complete their happy little home. Everything is going perfectly for the couple, who plan to wed … until Alva’s mother shows up and reveals to Owen that Alva is already married.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “slut shaming,” you can read more about it here. Natalie Wood’s character is a victim of slut shaming from practically every other character in the story. Her mother belittles her, shames her for her sexuality, and yet begs her to use her sexual prowess for financial gain instead of her own pleasure. Her mother only seems to care about her when she is able to use her for financial gain. This is proven when the mother abandons her younger daughter, Willie, to run off with a man. Willie is too young for her mother to exploit, and, therefore, is treated as a burden. Mr. Johnson admits that he is already married, but is willing to financially support Alva in exchange for her “company.” Her mother’s boyfriend is constantly making passes at her whenever her mother is not around. Owen first asks her if she is a whore, then begins a relationship with her; however, he treats her with disgust when her mother tells him of her past transgressions. It seems that he only truly cares for Alva when she is playing the part of the stereotypical, conservative housewife.
Frankly, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this film so much, despite the anger I felt in regards to the sexual oppression and exploitation of Alva. The chemistry between Natalie Wood and Robert Redford is intoxicating. Mary Badham’s spitfire charm is just as rich in this film as her heartwarming portrayal of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
If you’re interested in checking out this great film for yourself, Warner Archive has released This Property is Condemned through their MOD (manufactured-on-demand) service. The DVD features a set-up option and scene selection. For someone who likes to watch TV and films with subtitles, this is a great feature.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of This Property is Condemned for the purposes of this review.