The Landlord, Hal Ashby's directorial debut, may have all the flaws and rough edges of a first effort, but it also has the distinctive offbeat talent and approach he would bring to his successive ventures. Specifically seen from the off here is the satirical and caustic eye he had for America's rich, eccentric, blissfully ignorant and self centred WASP families - characters and ideals he would go on to explore and poke fun at, more successfully, in the likes of Shampoo and Harold and Maude.
The film concerns the baby faced Beau Bridges as Elgar, a 29 year old moneyed white kid, who one day decides to up and leave his families rich, palatial surroundings and buy property for himself. He settles upon a run down tenement in a black ghetto with some half arsed idea to knock it all through to the skylight and hang a chandelier from there. That's it. He turns up that first day dressed in a white suit and is laughed at, jeered at and chased off by the black tenants.
So far, so slightly dated 70s race comedy, right?
Well yeah, except Ashby's film takes a far more pleasing turn into social commentary territory, digging deep into the then inherent perceived notions of race and the hypocrisy and awkwardness therein.
The twist arrives when Bridges tenancy means his eyes are somewhat opened to a different way of life, including the hardships his black neighbours face and both their rage and pride at how they are situated in the society of the day. Awkwardly, but perhaps expediently for the plot, Elgar's (Bridges' character) major wake up call comes when he sleeps with Fanny played by Diana Sands whilst her man Copee (Lou Gossett Jr) is imprisoned for some protesting down town. The sex means nothing to Fanny, because she loves Copee, but it clearly means something to Elgar as it enables him to commit to the feelings he has for a mixed race girl he has met previously (Marki Bey) and who he was shown to have conflicting feels for, having initially presumed that she was white. However, Elgar and Fanny's one meaningless night of passion, leads to pregnancy...
It's an uneven film, with some surreal moments (Bridges' mother, played by Lee Grant, has a brief vision of a Zulu woman dancing when he he announces he's fallen for a black girl; like Reggie Perrin's glimpse of hippo whenever the mother in law was mentioned) jostling for attention with some strong and nicely handled drama (the scene when he overhears the growing argument between Fanny and Copee, knowing that he is the reason for it is a particular stand out) and not lacking in stereotypical representation of both the black and white characters. Even when the film settles on more solid dramatic ground, it still can't resist going for the wacky and we inevitably see Elgar dressing in African style threads as he adopts to his ghetto living, much to his mother's utter horror. But despite all this, The Landlord remains a film that has something and it speaks its message in an interesting, albeit quirky, manner.
Honest but by no means optimistic, The Landlord clearly takes the pulse of the nation at the time making audiences laugh as well as think.