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This Property Is Condemned

This Property Is Condemned(1966)


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This Property Is Condemned (1966)

Robert Redford had appeared in several television and film roles in the early 1960s, but it was not until he had a huge success in the Broadway show Barefoot in the Park (1963) that Hollywood really took notice of him. Redford's performance as a bisexual movie star opposite Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) earned him a Golden Globe as best new star, as well as Wood's admiration and friendship. The following year, the two co-starred again in This Property Is Condemned, based on a Tennessee Williams one-act play.

Executive Producer Ray Stark wanted Elizabeth Taylor to star, with John Huston directing. She agreed, but wanted her husband Richard Burton to direct. Both Huston and Taylor (who was too old to play the teenaged Alva Starr) bowed out, and the part went to Wood. A fan of Williams's work, Wood was happy to step in, saying in an interview, "It's probably the closest I'll ever get to playing Blanche DuBois, so I'd better make the most of it."

The original play was a twenty-minute conversation between two characters, Willie, Alva's 13-year old kid sister, and Tom, a boy she meets on the train tracks next to her mother's abandoned boarding house for railroad workers in a small Mississippi town. The film uses Williams's play (and dialogue) only as a framing device for a flashback to the poignant love story between Alva and Owen Legate, sent by the railroad to handle mass layoffs during the Depression.

Wood, who had co-star and director approval, chose Redford to play Owen, and Redford suggested his friend Sydney Pollack to direct. The two men met in 1960, when both had acting roles in the independent black and white feature, War Hunt, Redford's film debut. Pollack had just directed his first feature, The Slender Thread (1965), starring Anne Bancroft, which had received good reviews. Redford later told his biographer Michael Feeney Callan that This Property Is Condemned was in "development hell." He recalled that "Ray Stark threw every writer he had at it, from John Huston to Francis Coppola, but none of them managed to get over the fact that it was a one-act play." Coppola was one of three credited writers, along with Fred Coe and Edith Sommer, but the actual number was about a dozen, including James Bridges, Charles Eastman, and John Houseman, who also produced. Finally, Pollack locked himself in a motel room with the multiple drafts of the script, literally cut and pasted a new version, then turned it over to another writer, David Rayfiel, to smooth, polish, and cobble together yet another draft. Tennessee Williams was so unhappy with the final film that he wanted his credit removed. He only succeeded in having it read "suggested by a play by Tennessee Williams," instead of "based on a play by."

Mary Badham, who played Willie, later recalled that shooting on location in Mississippi was stressful. "It was a very tough shoot...Nat was going through a really difficult period in her life. We had script changes daily. It was unbelievable. It was a madhouse....There was so much tension on that set you could cut it with a knife." Redford wrote in his diary that he hoped Wood would get fed up enough to walk off the film. Such a prima donna move, of course, was unthinkable for the always-professional Wood. Soon after production ended, despondent about her career and personal life, the high-strung Wood reportedly took an overdose of sleeping pills.

In spite of the problems during production, Wood is lovely and touching in This Property Is Condemned, and the chemistry between her and Redford is potent. Pollack told Wood biographer Suzanne Finstad that she had qualities that enhanced her portrayal. "There was a fragility in her, and the emotions were very close to the can feel a kind of quivering just below the surface, a very appealing and vulnerable part of her." Canadian actress Kate Reid gives powerful performance as Alva's manipulative mother. Robert Blake and Charles Bronson are excellent in complex supporting roles. And James Wong Howe's burnished, masterful cinematography emphasizes the elegiac mood of the film.

The reviews were mixed, at best. Variety found the film "a handsomely-mounted, well acted Depression era drama....The production is adult without being sensational, touching without being maudlin." But Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it "As soggy, sentimental a story of a po' little white-trash gal as ever oozed from the pen of Tennessee Williams." Newsweek offered faint praise. "Natalie Wood has a few admirable moments, but most often seems a well-scrubbed debutante who has strayed into the wrong side of town."

The Harvard Lampoon delivered the ultimate blow. Taking note of Wood's recent string of badly-reviewed films, the satirical college magazine voted her "worst actress of this year, last year, and next." Wood may have been mortified, but she played the good sport and showed up in person to accept the "award," the first star to actually do so, even giving a gushing acceptance speech. She turned embarrassment into triumph, and won over her detractors.

Director: Sydney Pollack
Producer: John Houseman
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Coe, Edith Somer, suggested by a one-act play of Tennessee Williams
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Costume Design: Edith Head
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Stephen Grimes, Phil Jeffries
Music: Kenyon Hopkins; "Wish Me a Rainbow" words and music by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
Principal Cast: Natalie Wood (Alva Starr), Robert Redford (Owen Legate), Charles Bronson (J.J. Nichols), Kate Reid (Hazel Starr), Mary Badham (Willie Starr), Alan Baxter (Knopke), Robert Blake (Sidney), John Harding (Johnson), Dabney Coleman (Salesman), Jon Provost (Tom)
110 Minutes

by Margarita Landazuri

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