There are films that somehow seem to vanish for no good reason from time to time, and one such movie is The Landlord. Apart from an unheralded US VHS release back in the 1980s, the film has pretty much been out of circulation since its initial release in 1970. Books barely reference it; fans of 70s cinema hardly seem to have heard of it.
Yet this is no minor movie vanishing after its initial run. It’s the directorial debut of Hal Ashby, the first in a pretty impressive decade-long run of films – Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Being There, Coming Home and Bound for Glory – and is produced by Norman Jewison, then coming straight off In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. It was Jewison’s cache that got the financed, though other commitments meant he would quickly hand it over to his editor Ashby.
The Landlord opens with the lead character Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) talking to camera about how he’s just bought a house in a run down Brooklyn tenement and wants to throw the occupants out, gut the place and live there himself as part of a process of gentrification (something that, ironically, has really happened in the neighbourhood since). Elgar is a spoiled rich kid from the whitest of whitebread families, but he’s not the villain that this introduction might suggest. On arriving at his new property, he gets to meet his tenants, and quickly starts to like them. Before long, he’s moved in to the building and rejected his family’s bigotry and snobbishness, and also formed close relationships with his tenants – some closer than other, as he has a one-night stand with Fanny (Diana Sands), the girlfriend of aggressive and racially confused black activist and frequent arrestee Copee (Lou Gossett Jr) and forms a more committed relationship with mix-raced dancer Lanie (Marki Bey) who catches his eye in a nightclub (and you really can’t blame him), and who is amused that he initially thinks she is white.
Like several films of the period, The Landlord tackles the racial tension of the time head on, but it doesn’t feel preachy, even if the screenplay by Bill Gunn (later to make Ganja and Hess) does contain some biting dialogue and social commentary. While Elgar’s family are rather one-dimensional comic stereotypes, the film is even-handed, showing racism and misunderstanding on both sides, but also suggesting that people from wildly different backgrounds really can find some common ground if they try. It’s helped by a personable cast – Bridges is excellent as the naïve, likeable rich kid who is pulled out of his complacency and arrested childhood as the story progresses, Sands is heartbreakingly vulnerable, Bey adorable and Lee Grant as Elgar’s mother wonderfully snarky and hypocritical.
The Landlord doesn’t wash over the problems it portrays, but equally it doesn’t try to exploit them. It’s a wonderful film with a lot of heart, and it keeps surprising you with where it goes. Its appearance on DVD is long overdue and very welcome.