Hal Asbhy’s skill as an editor shines through his directorial debut The Landlord, a biting comedy of social upheaval, warring classes and racial divides. Ashby, who edited films for Norman Jewison (including the Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night) before turning to directing, uses the cut as if it were the Holy Grail, meticulously building paralleling scenes through montage. Ashby’s inter-cutting can be seen in the bravura opening sequence, when rich white slacker Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) decides to buy a tenement building in the urban slums.
In wonderful Asbhy fashion, Elgar arrives at the run-down structure happy, naive, and in a car stuffed with flowers and shrubs. He’s instantly intimidated by the locals, who are equally flabbergasted at his sensational presence. Ashby uses this hilarious scenario as a cover for harsh revelations of racism and intolerance on both sides of the coin. The Landlord, with its bizarre and haunting juxtapositions, shows the beginnings of a master filmmaker working through the contradictions of big budget film-making, attempting to analyze ideas beyond genre conventions.
Like Elaine May, Ashby’s seamless style always feels wonderfully human, his characters exhibiting emotional polar opposites simultaneously and to great affect. Many examples of this appear throughout The Landlord, but my favorite is the combination of staunch nastiness and rigid compassion in the scene between Lee Grant’s matriarch and Pearl Bailey’s tenant, the one moment in the film where white and black melt away to reveal the people underneath.