What are two individualistic, highly motivated movie stars supposed to do when faced with an unimaginative studio system eager to misuse their talents? Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen collaborate with a great writer, director and producer for an urban romance with an eye on the sexual double standard. It’s a hybrid production: a gritty drama that’s also a calculated career move.
Love with the Proper Stranger
KL Studio Classics
1963 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date September 19, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Edie Adams, Tom Bosley, Herschel Bernardi, Harvey Lembeck, Agusta Ciolli, Nina Varela, Marilyn Chris, Richard Dysart, Arlene Golonka, Tony Mordente, Nobu McCarthy, Richard Mulligan, Vic Tayback, Dyanne Thorne, Val Avery.
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Film Editor: Aaron Stell
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by Arnold Schulman
Produced by Alan J. Pakula
Directed by Robert Mulligan
1963’s Love with the Proper Stranger is a star vehicle for two stars trying to ground their screen personalities in serious drama. In 1962 Natalie Wood was just off two big musicals, but her career was still not firmly established. The makers of West Side Story had resisted her because of associations with the ‘square’ pictures Warners had forced on her. Steve McQueen was wanted for war movies and westerns, roles that by themselves wouldn’t lead to top-tier star status. Thus he was taking on odd-job assignments, like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier in the Rain. TV writer Arnold Schulman had been tapped for some big features, including the romantic Wild is the Wind; his script for this New York-set ‘problem’ romance is like a ’50s TV play with slightly rougher edges.
Five movies into his feature career, former TV director Robert Mulligan teamed with his producer Alan J. Pakula for the third time to make the show he’d be most remembered for, the nostalgic To Kill a Mockingbird. This follow-up returns to the big city, and the kind of ethnic characters that proliferated in ’50s TV dramas.
Macy’s clerk Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) seeks out the man who got her pregnant, musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen). Rocky barely remembers her, but responds when Angie asks him to ‘find her a doctor.’ Confusion reigns as Mom and Dad Dominick and Mama Rossini (Herschel Bernardi & Penny Santon) try to set up Angie with the meek but unexciting fry cook Anthony Columbo (Tom Bosley of The World of Henry Orient). Angie is also shaken when Rocky takes her to see his parents, to get money for her procedure. They stay a night at the apartment of Barbie (Edie Adams), Rocky’s girlfriend of the moment. When the idea of marriage gets bandied about, Rocky is amenable — but only because he feels responsible, and is willing ‘to take his medicine.’ Angie’s panicked response is to try to run away from Rocky, her family, everyone.
The potent Mulligan / Pakula / Schulman filmmaking team was clearly looking for something different when they decided to film much of Love with the Proper Stranger in gritty B&W, to cut through some of the glamour BS of normal studio product. Thus we return to street realities of life in New York where everyone seems to have an ethnic last name. Angie is not supposed to be well educated. Although Ms. Wood tries on an accent for only a line or two we accept her as a woman who might clerk at a fancy Macy’s counter — she’s a long way from the drudgery at Woolworth’s imposed on Caroll Baker in Jack Garfein’s Something Wild from two years before. I’ll bet that Proper was influenced by Robert Wise’s Two for the Seesaw, a third B&W movie to set lovers in a New York that hovers somewhere between indifferent and hostile. All three films show lonely women trying to find their own apartments, and navigating relationships of varying instability.
The film’s opening makes us wonder if we’re watching a documentary, as a musician’s hiring hall sets up for business. When Angie and Rocky’s first argument spills out onto the sidewalks, the camera follows them into crowds, scenes filmed naturalistically, and partly with real passersby, not extras. Most of the movie skips the standard glamorous touches, at least visually – to find his folks, Angie and Rocky travel by city bus.
The family scenes are pure TV drama in the style of Paddy Chayefsky. Angie’s dad drives a delivery truck and her brothers (including Harvey Lembeck!) are not attuned to fine manners. The nervous, inoffensive Anthony Columbo is forced on Angie so crudely that he breaks out into fits of clumsiness. When Angie goes to see Anthony’s family, she feels so awkward that she becomes slapstick-level clumsy. The characters are warm and believable, and both dialogue and performances are above average. But much of what we see are clichés, like the nervous spilling of drinks and breaking of glasses.
As film subject matter, ‘the trip to the abortionist’ had more or less run its course in the 1950s, with better-than-average teen problem movies like the excellent Unwed Mother. Other dramas that do not exploit the issue are the later Our Time and the superb Alfie. Here in Proper the frightening trip to the abortionist is used as a moral catalyst: the two rush into an un-reassuring, unsanitary situation that forces Rocky to realize that he really cares about Angie, and must take responsibility for her. A typical free-floating user of women, Rocky isn’t accustomed to worrying about anyone but himself. His relationship with Barbie is a mutual convenience – when he says that each of them is in love but, but only with themselves, Barbie doesn’t take offense. Rocky also has no trouble picking up girls at the musician’s hall.
Natalie Wood almost seems believable as a girl of the tenements. Her Angie stomps out of the crowded family apartment, and then must crawl back, knowing full well that she has no place to go. Wood communicates delicate feelings well, giving the camera a full appreciation of her emotional reaction when Rocky reveals his thoughtlessness through idle conversation. As for Steve McQueen, this role is an interesting contrast to his later laconic, uncommunicative characters. McQueen probably reassessed his limp farce The Honeymoon Machine, pulling faces and rattling off fast dialogue, as something he never wanted to do again.
But Rocky Papasano has no trouble talking when he wants to. Running about in a raincoat, he looks quite a bit like Frank Bullitt, with a wider range of facial expressions. Only in the last act does Rocky try to get something going with Angie, pulling her down into a kiss on the sofa. The interesting thing about Love with the Proper Stranger is that the sexual intimacy part already occurred before the fade-up; the entire movie is about dealing with consequences after an irresponsible fling. For 1963, that’s a big leap forward for frankness in a romantic drama.
Earlier scenes had let us know that the show would eventually reject its gritty look, and opt for conventional optimism — we should be tipped off when a source radio plays Jack Jones singing the film’s title tune. But as soon as the kiss on the sofa happens we can tell that Proper won’t be sending dating couples out of the theater in a state of depression. Pitched out on his ear, Rocky bounces back with a foolproof romantic curtain scene, a ‘you can’t possibly turn me down’ gesture performed in public, in broad daylight. Even without candy color, music by De Vol and broad smiles, the show finishes as a much lighter item.
Note that Natalie Wood gets top billing. This was perhaps Steve McQueen’s last film outing where he was on an equal basis with his co-star. Lee Remick plays major support in his Baby the Rain Must Fall but the show circles around McQueen’s character. Later on, McQueen’s characters barely needed female companionship except to prove a character’s manliness — in The Thomas Crown Affair, the effective glamour spotlight fell on McQueen, not Faye Dunaway. When teamed with Ali McGraw in the action film The Getaway, she’s still a secondary presence. In Proper Stranger Natalie Wood is willing and able to drop her Hollywood shield; once or twice she seems truly vulnerable. McQueen does allow himself to play against he-man expectations, for a scene where he shows up with a black eye, having apparently lost a fight. Yet he is already playing a careful road-to-superstardom game.
The supporting cast is a lively bunch led by Tom Bosley in his first feature film. Herschel Bernardi shines, as does Agusta Ciolli. Val Avery and Robert’s brother Richard Mulligan also offer notable contributions. Edie Adams seems short changed, and indeed, her big moment with McQueen appears truncated by a fast blur and a cut to the next scene. Does this account for a two-minute running time discrepancy from the original release? Perhaps somebody thought that Ms. Adams’ scene was too long, or that it put McQueen’s Rocky in a bad light. It would be nice to see an original shooting script.
Very familiar faces that I thought would have been in many more pictures than the IMDB lists for them are the sour-faced Elena Karam, and the formidable horror mother-in-law Nina Varela. You’d recognize them on sight. The IMDB gives some other, uncredited names of interest that I tried to identify but couldn’t: Tony Mordente, Nobu McCarthy, and of all people, Dyanne Thorne. I think the blonde who accosts Rocky in the musician’s hiring hall is Gina, played by Marilyn Chris. Does anybody have these people spotted?
Nighttime shots of Times Square show a giant poster that seems to say ‘Robert Wagner,’ plus a Cinerama marquee for Search for Paradise. Does this date the shots as stock footage from 1957 – 1959?
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Love with the Proper Stranger is an excellent widescreen transfer of a show that once looked pretty drab on old TV prints. Milton Krasner’s cinematography captures the starkness of the winter light on deserted Manhattan streets. The lighting works a good compromise making Natalie Wood’s Angie look attractive, yet believably ‘ordinary.’
Elmer Bernstein’s music works fine except for one transition cue of people walking, that sounds like it ought to be in a western. He does give the final happy sidewalk scene some extra dignity.
Kino’s extras list a selection of extra trailers, and a full commentary by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan of Diabolique magazine. They offer a by-the numbers informative commentary that also wants to be a full interpretation of the film as cinematic art. In the first ten minutes they repeatedly relate Love with the Proper Stranger to Italian Neorealism, when the connection could only be a tangent of a tangent at best, even with superficial similarities enhanced. There were plenty of influences more applicable to this situation. Once that was over I found myself enjoying the critics’ fresh angles on the actors and the drama on screen.
Kino’s reversible cover offers not one but two attractive poster styles.
Love with the Proper Stranger was always going to have an uphill battle to qualify for film art, even with such creative filmmakers in charge. It really marks the birth of the star vehicle as something manipulated by the stars themselves, in the service of careerism. Even with director Mulligan and promising movies like Inside Daisy Clover, Natalie Wood found it difficult to build a strong body of work. As he could always work variations on his Action Man image, McQueen had it easier. ‘Important’ films with roles suitable for Oscar nominations weren’t that difficult to concoct for popular male stars, whereas even the biggest female stars found themselves in roles where their main problem became relating to a man.
By Glenn Erickson
Love with the Proper Stranger
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson