Following his glorious run as an innovative film editor in the ’60s, hippie artiste Hal Ashby graduated to directing with The Landlord, an overly ambitious but thoroughly admirable comedy-drama about race relations. Beau Bridges, effectively blending innocence and impetuousness, plays Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders, a 29-year-old gentleman of leisure living on his wealthy family’s estate just outside New York City. Half-heartedly deciding to form an identity separate from his blueblood clan, Elgar buys an apartment building in a ghetto neighborhood on the verge of gentrification, imagining he’ll boot out the black tenants and create a groovy bachelor pad. Yet upon discovering the tenants’ vibrant community, Elgar becomes more interested in bonding with his new acquaintances than evicting them.
So begins a sensitive exploration of a dilettante’s journey through white guilt—after recovering from the shock of seeing how poor African-Americans live, Elgar gets involved with two different black women. Elgar’s mystified by the life experiences of Lanie (Marki Bey), a light-skinned exotic dancer ostracized for not being “black enough,” and he’s bewitched by Franny (Diana Sands), a gorgeous hairdresser married to hot-tempered activist Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.). Even as Elgar juggles these romances, however, there’s underlying tension because everyone recognizes that Elgar can escape the troubles of the inner city any time he wants by returning to the comfort of his family’s estate.
Written by Bill Gunn from a novel by Kristin Hunter, The Landlord is filled with knowing moments, although the story sprawls in such a way that the main themes become somewhat diffused. For instance, the movie spends a great deal of time developing the character of Elgar’s mother, Joyce (Lee Grant), and the most dynamic scene in the picture is Joyce’s drunken lunch with one of Elgar’s tenants, no-bullshit fortune teller Marge (Pearl Bailey). Clearly, Joyce is meant to represent the out-of-touch Establishment against which Elgar is rebelling, but Joyce’s scenes feel tangential.
Compensating for The Landlord’s storytelling hiccups are terrific performances and a wonderful sense of atmosphere. Working with master cinematographer Gordon Willis, Ashby creates a loose, naturalistic quality in every scene; Willis ensures that the movie is both aesthetically beautiful and convincingly gritty. As for the actors, Bridges gets blown off the screen by costars at regular intervals, but in a way, that amplifies the movie’s message—the world beyond Elgar’s insular experience is so vibrant that he must grow as a person if he wishes to truly belong. The complex resolution of Elgar’s journey underlines that he still has a long way to go on the road to maturity even as the closing credits roll. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
The Landlord: GROOVY