Strangers When We Meet (1960)

strangers1I must confess, I was greatly surprised by just how sad Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet turned out to be. There’s a melancholy that runs through it, much of it surrounding Kim Novak’s character, Maggie. I’ve read that there was a possible intention by the director and writer Evan Hunter (who wrote the screenplay from his own novel) for the film to be a positive, albeit bittersweet story (better to have loved and lost, that kind of thing) but while I can understand that, I think the balance falls more towards the tragic. Maybe I’m just more of a glass half-empty guy; its interesting that the films ending may reflect something of the viewer regards what one gets out of it. Anyway, as the credits came up they did so accompanied by a typical-of-the-era song, the tone and lyrics suggesting some positivity to put a bounce in the audience’s step but it felt ill-judged to me, as the way it ended really felt pretty bleak leaving me with rather a sour taste in my mouth.

The film is essentially a doomed romance, with a midlife crisis twist to it. Both main characters, Novak’s Maggie Gault and Kirk Douglas’ Larry Coe are suffering midlife angst: suddenly feeling reflective of unfulfilled lives, questioning earlier life choices; Larry is feeling trapped in an unrewarding job, his early-career ambitions unrealised, and Maggie feels trapped in a marriage lacking passion, without a sex life worth speaking of – a husband, Ken (John Bryant) who is physically distant and withdrawn (and married to Kim Novak? Go figure). On an early-morning school run, Larry drops off his son at the school bus stop and sees Maggie there with her own son; instantly attracted to her, his lingering stare is subtly returned by Maggie but that’s about it- maybe usually that’s all it would ever be, but Larry is restless both at work and at home and is soon chasing Maggie, who is naturally given her own situation quite susceptible to a man’s advances. We later learn that this isn’t her first extra-marital encounter, and its to the films credit that it doesn’t condemn her as being some kind of wanton, scarlet hussy, but rather more sympathetic. I think much of this is due to Novak’s typically fragile performance; clearly from the four films I’ve now seen her in, much of her personal character was shining through in her roles- at least the roles I’ve seen her in. Maggie here isn’t very far removed from Madeleine of Vertigo or Lona of Pushover, all her characters seem subject to the predatory male gaze and trapped by it. I’ve read before of actresses being uncomfortable with being sexual objects in film no matter how bewitched the camera is with them, and that seems the case with Novak from what I’ve seen. There is a complexity to her that belies the simple category of Hollywood sex siren. 

strangers2Clearly, the film is a product of its time. I don’t believe any of the wives seen in the film have careers of their own, or lives away from the home unit (raising the children, doing housework and taking care of their husbands), so the sexual politics at the heart of it are quite dated – you couldn’t make this same film today. Similarly the film seems to excuse, in a roundabout way, adultery, in that Larry’s misery at home and work seems to excuse his affair with Maggie. Their affair is instigated by him (as if Maggie is available just because she’s miserable) and also ended by him (opting for fresh start with an exciting career opportunity whisking him and his family off to lovely Hawaii) leaving Maggie high and dry back in the situation she started in, immediately afterwards being lecherously eyed by a construction worker which almost broke my heart. Its possibly the one thing that betrays the films age- the man gets his life changing for the better and the woman is left behind in the same mess she was in before (there’s certainly no indication that the affair has convinced Maggie to finally leave her husband and try make a better life for herself elsewhere). Maybe I would have enjoyed the film a little more if Larry was as miserable as Maggie when their affair is finally ended, as if they each return to their quiet lives of suburban midlife misery for the sake of their marriages, their children and the status quo, but its certainly a better outcome for Larry than Maggie.

But despite all this I absolutely loved this film. Novak as always is a treasure, okay I’ve not seen her in many productions so I have no idea if her performances are always what some may consider one-note (I believe she came from a modelling background with no formal dramatic training?) and that seeing her in more films might become a somewhat repetitive experience, but like with Vertigo, this film seems to fit her like a glove. As an actor I always enjoyed Douglas –Spartacus, Ace in the Hole, The Vikings, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea…)  although I’ve become rather uncomfortable with tales of his private life- its just one for those situations where one has to seperate the man and his considerable ego from the performances he left onscreen, and I rather think this is one of his better ones. Can one possibly imagine the life Douglas led at the time, a major star and producer in Hollywood? Perhaps his personal life infers something in the film- if half of what I’ve heard and read regards Douglas is true, he seems eminently qualified for the role and he’s definitely pretty convincing as Larry. I don’t think, say, someone like Jack Lemmon would convince as much, as great an ‘ordinary Joe’ character actor as he was (curiously, Lemmon’s own The Apartment was released that same year, itself a commentary on American lives and sexual politics (albeit regards the workplace rather than Californian suburbia)). No, while Novak suits Maggie its clear that Douglas absolutely fits the part of Larry: consummate casting for both.

strangers3The supporting cast is very good, particularly Walter Matthau as the lecherous and frankly despicable neighbour Felix Anders who learns about Larry’s affair and uses it as an excuse to make a worrying advance on Larry’s wife Eve (Barbara Rush, whose underwritten character is one of the films possible weak points) in a really edgy scene in which the film almost transforms into something else entirely. I thought John Bryant as Maggie’s passionless husband was very good in what could have been a very tricky role- my own suspicion that he was secretly gay, but just assuming the role of married man with children in order to fit in society and have a successful career, proved unconfirmed in the film but it would certainly explain his character. Bryant manages to play Ken as fairly warm and loving, albeit at too much of a distance for Maggie, when the role could have been simply cold and one-dimensional, less convincing. He’s not a bad husband, he’s just not the husband that Maggie needs.

A game I sometimes play after film narratives end is imagining what might happen next, if, say, sequels were as prevalent back then as they are today- would a sequel/spin-off continuing Maggie’s story further investigate her marriage and perhaps confirm my suspicions of Ken hiding his true sexuality? What a daring and controversial film that might have been back then (its a little like imagining what happens after the end of The Apartment, say, mindful of the seductive possibility  running through Glengarry Glen Ross that Jack Lemmon is secretly playing The Apartment‘s CC Baxter at the wrong end of the American Dream).  Or maybe -lets be romantic- that Larry’s problems run deeper than his career and is just not happy in Hawaii, and flies back to be with Maggie after all.

Thanks again to Colin for his recommendation regards this film: one of the many pleasures of this blog are the comments from people I have the pleasure to consider freinds who I would never otherwise meet, and their tips and recommendations for films and television shows I often have never even heard of. Colin’s own review of Strangers When We Meet can be found here. As is usual with very good films, my life is all the richer for the pleasure of having seen this little gem from 1960 and I shall return to it again. Mind, this really isn’t an easy film to see, but I was fortunate to be able to cheaply buy a second-hand DVD copy from CEX of all places (well, there’s another first, and I’ve had to create a new ‘DVD’ category for this blog, yikes never saw that coming). I can only hope that, as its a Columbia picture, that Indicator might be able to restore and release the film on Blu-ray someday. It certainly deserves to be, its a lovely-looking film that deserves a HD release, the DVD is fine as an opportunity to actually see the film but it really deserves better.