Pretty Poison (1968)

Prettypoison1.jpgBoy. What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?” – Anthony Perkins as Dennis Pitt

Director Noel Black himself described the story as “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teenybopper Lady Macbeth.” It seems like the perfect shorthand to get a line on the characters and the actors more than rise to the challenge.

By all accounts,  Black, a recent UCLA film grad, wasn’t much of a director, at least when it came to working with actors. But he could sure edit a film together. The cutting helps to accentuate this trippy world with the spliced together images of Anthony Perkins’ unstable psyche.

After securing his release from a mental institution, Dennis (Perkins) is continually fixated on all sorts of fantasies — playing games full of cops and robbers and CIA agents. He keeps surveillance on a pretty blonde majorette (Tuesday Weld) drilling nearby and unwittingly meets her at a local hot dog stand. They make contact and his nonchalant cool captures her imagination.

We are always wondering if they actually take each other seriously. But the beauty of the script is how they never seem to question one another. They just go with it. What seems utterly ludicrous to us as an audience is so very believable to them.

It relies on Anthony Perkins being able to pull it off and he gets it spot-on with every line coming out of his mouth with total conviction. He makes us believe he’s serious with every bit of fanciful conspiracy he matter-of-factly dreams up.  At his core is this benign human being. We get a sense he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, watching Psycho (1960) might give us a different inclination. And that’s part of the issue.

Perkins’ performance can never be seen outside of the shadow of his greatest triumph and simultaneously his most constricting role. Because everything he does is informed by the part of Norman Bates. If we were able to remove this distraction, his part in Pretty Poison would feel much the same as Tuesday Weld’s does. Because in films like Friendly Persuasion he was the shy, All-American boy. But conventions are getting subverted left and right.

They both make us start believing in their reality. They rendezvous in “makeout valley” only to get ousted by some cops and Dennis tries to hold down his job at the plant, despite constantly being distracted. He professes that aliens are trying to infiltrate the water supply and then very reluctantly stakes out Sue Ann’s home to spy on the mother’s boyfriend.

They are swimming in the invigorating paranoia of their own little world and the drugged-out love romp they create for themselves. Each reverie-like frame bathed in sunbeams and an ever refracting prism of colors. For these very reasons, Pretty Poison could play as a companion film to The Shooting (1967) – another acid singed genre picture.

But at some point, it begins to turn on its head. Because Dennis is the one we suspect will become dangerous due to his erratic behavior. It seems all too inevitable as his parole officer (John Randolph) continues to warn him. Yet the killer joke of the whole movie is how it plays out for real.

This pretty blonde in the high school honor roll turns out to be a femme fatale sipping Pepsi. What are the chances? A little friendly neighborhood murder is what’s on the docket one evening. She gets an emotional high from her adventures with Dennis only to take them to an even deadlier end. The film is not meant to make conventional sense. It never does.

Instead, it operates in alternate realities, delusions of grandeur mixed with sociopathic behavior. It is an instance of a story having two edges, both the terrifying and darkly funny. If there was ever an obvious precursor to Gone Girl (2014), Pretty Poison seems like an obvious jumping off point.

Unfortunately, it was the casualty of absolutely horrific timing. Not only did it not get the distribution it needed but the year of 1968 was punctuated by the assassinations of both MLK and RFK. A film with such content was probably not on the top of the public’s watch list.

For the actors as well there were unfortunate circumstances. Since it was Perkins’ first highly visible American film since Pyscho (1960), his typecasting was again solidified because the shades of an unhinged Norman Bates type is all people seemed to focus on. Tuesday Weld hated the entire process and considered it one of if not the worst of her performances. Though her rapport with Black might have been nonexistent, somehow an evocative performance of contradictions still comes through to compliment her costar.

It’s easy to see where the roots of a cult following might grab hold of such an idiosyncratic picture as this. It fits into the love-on-the-run canon with the likes of Bonnie Clyde (Weld was offered the lead initially) and then Badlands (1973) but Pretty Poison is an even smaller scale story never breaking out of a small town scope.

Its neuroticism and quirks are incubated in such a way to deliver a tone indicative of late 60s disillusionment within the youth culture. Weld might be the finest example as she along with a select few represented the prim and proper girl-next-door sensibilities of the 1950s. Pretty Poison blows the lid off the past and in its own unassuming way it offers a warped portrait of where the world might be heading. If the right person dusts off this offbeat genre flick, it casts a certain off-the-wall spell to capture the imagination.

3.5/5 Stars

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

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Luis Bunuel made a name for himself ever since his early work on Un Chien Andalou (1929) as king of the surrealist filmmakers. That and bashing the bourgeoisie. Some might be surprised in finding that Diary of a Chambermaid, adapted from the eponymous 1900 novel of Octave Mirbeau, is a fairly straightforward narrative for him.

From what I gather, that’s not to say its fully faithful to its source but more so it does not send the narrative hurtling into surrealistic visions like many of his other prominent works. What’s not missing is his typical acerbic wit that belittles the lifestyle of the upper class partially through the eyes of a Chambermaid named Celestine (Jeanne Moreau).

Before it’s begun we already know it’s charted out a diverging course from that which Jean Renoir’s Hollywood effort tread. That goes without question because not simply the directors but the systems that they were working under prove drastically different. Thus, there’s little reason to label this a remake. It’s an entirely different beast.

Furthermore, their leading ladies, the vivacious Paulette Goddard, and the aloof Jeanne Moreau could not be more different muses. The latter dame of France projects even a mild indifference to the hoops she’s put through.

Moreau actually received the part over Silvia Pinal who was intent on being in the picture (even learning French for the role). Bunuel was no doubt happy to have Pinal aboard as well but ultimately the French backing won out.

While he did not get his initially chosen leading lady, Bunuel nevertheless was blessed with one of his other most prolific collaborators the young French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere who would go on to work with the director on many of his most prestigious later works.

Celestine, as portrayed here, is not an altogether awful human being — she does show some amount of heart even — but that does not mean she fails to realize the degree of power she has over people.

Yes, she’s only a chambermaid. There’s an elder gentleman who resides in the manor. His adult daughter who oversees much of their affairs. And we have the upstairs-downstairs drama at hand most certainly with gossip being traded. Especially about the Madame’s husband (Michel Piccoli) whose raging libido means he is just about to pronounce his love for anything that moves.

However, in this particular picture, the Monsieur Monteil also has an ongoing feud with the retired army officer next door who is constantly ridiculing him and tossing refuse onto his property. In fact, there are numerous other exemplary moments of wry humor like when a pronounced animal lover annihilates a butterfly at point-blank range his first time using a shotgun. Or the fact that the same man who turns out to be Lord of the manor finds Celestine far too long a name and christens her Marie; that’s what all his past maids went by.

But as Bunuel pictures are accustomed to doing, this one slowly begins to roll out the carpet of perversity masked under refined sophistication. The master has Celestine read to him in the evenings and quite nonchalantly asks to touch her calf. He says she has nothing to fear and otherwise he might be the most charming individual in the home. He’s simply exercising a few whims, after all, he’s advanced in years. He should be given leeway… That’s how the rationalization goes anyway. However, the moment is as cringe-worthy as it is despicable especially in an age where such acts of sexual harassment are finally being brought to the fore and into the light.

Except in a Bunuel picture these proclivities were never really hidden. He tantalizes and nearly taunts you with them. Because this elderly “gentleman” is not the only one. The perpetually vexed husband keeps inquiring if Celestine has settled in because he wants to have a love affair with her. He promises that he’s not a brute though his past history seems to suggest otherwise.

Then, there’s brusque chauffeur Joseph who initially picked her up at the station. He relishes the opportunity of making the goose for dinner suffer because they taste better that way. And he also brandishes callous statements about killing jews after scanning the newspaper headlines. His anti-semitic sentiments are never in question.

The crass behavior doesn’t end there either. The father dies and on the very same day, a darling little girl that Celestine had taken care of is prematurely pulled from the picture as well. Both have dubious shrouds lingering over them. Amid it all, Celestine nearly leaves her post but comes back and the marriage proposals keep on coming from every man. She finally ends up with probably the nicest of the lot. It turns out hurling insults and garbage is almost docile.

Even the priest while not necessarily a wayward figure provides no type of spiritual guidance. He has no wisdom to impart. Instead entreating his parishioners to give to his church. There is no one righteous, not even one.

One of the few moments Bunuel does stray from normal classical filmmaking comes in the final frames. The first time you see it the immediate assumption is your eyes must be playing a trick on you.

But then we see a mass of protesters jump once, then again, and one final time so that they have all disappeared from the screen with each subsequent cut. One final lightning bolt for good measure and the books close on Bunuel’s rueful indictment of the bourgeoisie. It was very much his favorite pastime.

And yet any neat explanation of the film — even if it is more conventional as a narrative — is soon eviscerated by any number of complications. The contradiction in character, political undertones, and even a finale that indubitably has ties to Bunuel’s early career all spring to mind. His picture L`Age d’Or (1930) was decried with a similar protest. There’s no doubt that with each subsequent picture, the director pushed the cinematic boundaries with schemes of visionary ingenuity. Love him or hate him, there is no denying the skill in his craft.

4/5 Stars

The Killers (1964)

The_Killers_(1964_movie_poster).jpgAfter an opening to rival the original film noir The Killers (1946), though nowhere near as atmospheric, Don Siegel’s The Killers asserts itself as a real rough and tumble operation with surprisingly frank violence. However, it might be expected from such a veteran action director on his way to making Dirty Harry (1971) with Clint Eastwood.

With hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Galagher) as the motors for the story, they help maintain a similar flashback structure to the original film taken from Hemingway’s short story, except this time their inquiries are a little more forceful than anything the insurance investigator managed in Robert Siodmak’s film.

Furthermore, to fit better with the cultural moment boxing is traded out for race car driving as our fateful hero in this instance is Johhny North (John Cassavetes) a tragic figure who got caught up in love and wounded in the same instance.

Still, Cassavetes even before he was a director of great repute, he made for a quality acting force because the intensity always seems to burn in his eyes and it serves him well here yet again.

He and his mechanic partner (Claude Akins) are intent on winning a big pile at the racetrack but Johnny gets caught up in a romance with an alluring beauty named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) who can’t get enough of him. But she also happens to be pretty closely connected to an unscrupulous “businessman” who conveniently pays the bills for her. If Johnny knew any better he would get out of there as fast as he could but she’s a knockout who seems to want him and he wants to believe in her sincerity.

Ronald Reagan takes on the uncharacteristically grimy role as the corrupt Jack Browning which interestingly enough would be the actor’s last Hollywood role before switching his sights on politics first as governor of California and then down the road aways as the president of the United States.

Like his predecessor so many years before, The Swede (Burt Lancaster), Johnny (Cassavetes) gets played for a bit of a stooge and as embittered as he is after a faltering racing career, he inserts himself into Jack Browning’s (Reagan) get-rich-quick bank job which is bound to spin out of control. Adding insult to injury Sheila is right there searing through him like she always used to. The imminent results speak for themselves concerning hitmen, dames, and everyone else who could possibly be caught up in the dirty business.

There are isolated moments where the drama gets laid down a little thick and yet for a film that was initially supposed to be a TV movie, this effort really is an enjoyable neo-noir despite being starkly different than its predecessor. In fact, that allows it to stand on its own two feet and even if it’s not nearly as good, Siegel’s film is still quite thrilling. Thankfully this one lives up to its name and it goes out as deadly as it came in which usually bodes well for a crime picture.

Part of that goes down to the acting talent because it feels like there’s no real throwaway role and everyone has something to keep them busy. Lee Marvin has top billing and he takes up a post that feels like it just might be the precursor to the enigmatic crime spree of Point Blank (1967). His performance along with Clu Gulager’s are undoubtedly the coolest bar none and yet they aren’t even in the majority of it.

That privilege goes to Cassavetes and Dickinson who light up the screen and play their character types impeccably. The same might be said for Claude Akins or Norman Fell. The only odd spot is Reagan but then again maybe that might only be my bias since I’m so used to seeing him be presidential.

3.5/5 Stars

Sunday in New York (1963)

Sunday_ny_moviep.jpgIt would appear that a film like Sunday in New York would never exist today. First, it’s obviously rooted in a stage play and it functions with the kind of moments you might expect out of some of Neil Simon’s works around New York though this particular story was crafted from a play by longtime screenwriter Norman Krasna who wrote many a screwball comedy back in the day.

But this is a film of the 1960s and it looks as such by today’s standards because it’s a chaste sex comedy that is charmingly madcap in its romance and numerous mishaps all while dodging around the social mores of the day. It’s never biting, always palatable, and fairly tame fun given its central themes.

New York becomes a lovely place for a pit stop over the weekend. Numerous people are headed there. First on the list is an airline pilot (Cliff Robertson) who is titillated by the prospect of a whole day alone with his best girl. Of course, being on active call near a busy terminal can be very aggravating for your love life and he and Mona constantly find themselves spending more time on the opposite ends of a telephone than actually together eating bagels and doing whatever else they normally do.

Then there’s Eileen (Jane Fonda), Adam’s little sister who is trying to get over a breakup with her beau. As a young, naive 22-year-old, she’s still trying to figure out the conventions of society and she goes to her big brother for advice on life’s most important questions. He’s someone she can trust about this particular issue.

The fact is she’s still a virgin (Gasp!). He does the brotherly thing and commends her as a respectable man will come along sometime for her. Meanwhile, he conveniently equivocates about what his romantic life looks like.

She does meet a man (Rod Taylor) and there is something between them rather odd at first and then strained by sexual tension and finally complicated by the fact that first her beau (Robert Culp) and then her brother Adam both come back and she must explain the presence of her guest. The film has plenty of comings and goings and while the plot is nothing new and noteworthy the cast makes it work rather well.

Jane Fonda gives a delightfully radiant performance opposite the always personable Rod Taylor with a meet-cute that’s so obviously absurd that it’s easy to laugh it off and simply enjoy it. They get thrown together on public transportation, aboard a bus, but the lady’s jacket gets caught on his coat and they must proceed to exit together. One of those awkward rom-com trifles. The film is full of these cute moments. Little do they know they will be spending a great deal more time with one another on a Sunday in New York.

3.5/5 Stars

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

KissMeStupidPosterWhile a less heralded picture, this Billy Wilder film is a minor classic built around a contrived comedic situation. Dean Martin opens playing a parodied version of himself as Dino the boozing, womanizing, but altogether good-natured playboy who makes a short pit stop in the gas station of the small town of Climax, Nevada following his latest Las Vegas circuit.

The beauty of his performance, though it may be exaggerated, there is no sense that this is a thinly veiled caricature. It’s blatantly obvious that “Dino” as he is called in the film is really only playing his “Rat Pack” persona that was known the world over.

That sets the groundwork for the film’s self-reflexive nature that is keenly aware of its cultural moment and the preoccupations of the general public as with many of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s best scripts.

Truthfully I’ve always been fond of Ray Walston ever since my first viewing of My Favorite Martian and before this picture, he cropped up in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Although I do adore Peter Sellers (who had to bow out due to a heart attack) and he’s often an ad-libbing genius, somehow Walston seems to more aptly fit the bill here.

That doesn’t mean I don’t regret that Jack Lemmon couldn’t take the role because he really was Billy Wilder’s greatest comedic counterpart, portraying every bit of neuroses that manifests itself in the middle-class everyman. He just gets it and putting him opposite his real-life wife in Felicia Farr would have been another delightful ironic layer to this comedy with its roots in infidelity.

No matter. It was not to be and what we are left with is still some fairly hefty star power. Walston audaciously takes center stage as Orville Spooner, a small town piano teacher with a paranoid fit of jealousy in relation to his gorgeous wife (Felicia Farr). He believes everyone from his teenage pupil to the local milkman is out to pluck his bright-eyed, loving bride away from him.

That’s of the utmost importance when his buddy (Cliff Osmond) dreams up a plan to get themselves a contract deal with Dino. It involves hosting the conveniently laid up pop singer, getting rid of Orville’s wife, and employing the services of one of the main attractions at the local watering hole The Belly Button — the one and only Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak). It seems simple enough to get her to masquerade as Orville’s wife just for the evening so she can make Dino feel at home.

You can see already that the narrative is entangled with bits and pieces of The Apartment (1960) and The Seven Year Itch (1957). Miscommunication and four parties involved means all sorts of foreseeable consequences. Kiss Me, Stupid is also fully aware of the contemporary Hollywood framework much in the same way of Sunset Blvd. Thus, it’s not above satirizing the ways of the entertainment industry — especially the movie stars — with the Rat Pack placed front and center thanks to Martin.

The small-time piano man and gas station attendant also have dreams of being the next Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer dynamic duo with aspirations for The Ed Sullivan Show no doubt.

Even in its throwaway lines about churchgoers, there’s something starkly sobering being acknowledged as there are in many of the things that Wilder finds time to take a jab at. The owner of the Belly Button, Big Bertha, has all her girls attend the local church because she thinks it’s good for public relations.

It passes like a blip but the suggestion seems to be that these lines of dialogue and what we see on screen might point out some kind of hypocrisy and although it’s played for comedy, instead what I see is the inherent brokenness.

The film spins in such a way that the infidelity somehow ends in a kind of loving understanding that feels like utter absurdity but maybe Wilder has done that on purpose. Still, in spite of myself, I found some humor in this film in ways that I never could in The Seven Year Itch or The Apartment.

The first was too empty with little to offer of substance and the second is often too stark and morose to be funny. This film is raucous and utterly insane in a sense but that’s the way Wilder likes it from Some Like it Hot (1959) to One, Two, Three (1961). Kiss Me Stupid isn’t such a spectacular comedy with some misfires but there’s no doubt that Wilder still has his stuff.

He always seemed to take a very basic concept that was wacky and far from allowing it to fizzle out, he sees it to completion, finding an ending that derives laughs while simultaneously providing wry commentary.

In another screenwriter’s hands or another director for that matter, the romantic comedy aspects would be endangered of becoming trite and uninspired but no such issue here. Wilder would never allow it.

The punchline of Kiss Me, Stupid is that both spouses were deceptive and unfaithful but they do it out of love — that final touch of trenchant Wilder wit. Ultimately, the film’s title is reminiscent of the famed quip in The Apartment (1960), “Shut up and deal.” You get the same sense of the relationship.

The men are essentially cads — spineless at times — and lacking much of a moral makeup (even if Orville plays the organ at church) but their women seem to give them some substance whether they be barmaids or plucky housewives. It’s still slightly mindboggling that Wilder pulled this movie off and got away with it no less.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Jules and Jim (1962)

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Jules and Jim breaks out of the gates with a frantic burst of energy giving off the effect of a comedic circus act or a whirling carousel and at times it functions as both. Champion of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut, at 29 years of age injects the film with this kind of frantic lifeblood tearing through the material and time with almost reckless abandon. If Breathless (1960) was not the title taken by one of its contemporaries, this picture could have just as easily taken the name.

You see, Truffaut takes Henri-Pierre’s Roche’s autobiographical novel, the work of an old man, and transforms it into a period piece shot by a young man. The distinctions reveal themselves in full force.

It’s a cinema of attraction with whips, tracks, freezes, jumps, and flies constituting a fluid adventure that’s given free reign to go in so many directions thanks to the versatile camerawork of Godard regular Raoul Coutard as well as connecting voice-over narration (provided by Michel Subor) and a score courtesy of George Delerue.

Still, as Truffaut lets us sink into his story things come more clearly into focus but never so they reach a point of complete clarity. He never dwells too long on a moment or an idea. Instead, choosing to move through the lives of his protagonists touching on so many moments and relationships and ideas. Thus, in one sense Jules and Jim never slogs but it also still functions as a fairly compelling work of historical drama covering a lot of terrain in a condensed amount of time. Some may find that off-putting others will welcome it as a refreshing permutation of the Hollywood status quo.

The year is 1912. An Austrian named Jules (Oskar Werner) and a Frenchman named Jim strike up a friendship that feels like the perfect representation of the deep lasting bond that can form between two individuals. They are young men with a great many of the same interests and a comparable outlook on life.

They’re always benevolent toward one another, they never fight, and they share a mutual satisfaction in the arts while diverting their time at the gymnasium, playing dominoes, and of course, in the company of women. From there one of the great cinematic friendships is forged for life. Though tested, not even a woman can tear their bond asunder…completely. At least not in the way we might expect.

It all begins when they become enamored with a statue, an opaque figure with a pleasant smiling face that captures them so much so that they must go and see it for themselves. But far more striking is the woman they meet back in France who embodies that same bewitching quality.

They meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) as they have met many other women in the past for tea or an afternoon of trivialities and conversation. Except Catherine is one of the few that stays with them. Of course, she is personified by none other than Jeanne Moreau that monumental beauty and one of the undisputed queens of the Nouvelle Vague alongside Anna Karina in Godard’s early works.

There’s a frisky and lithe vivacity that carries her through the film’s earliest scenes as she dons her disguise as Thomas frolicking through Paris in one of the most iconic and enduring sequences of the cinema. An overwhelmingly attractive abandon radiates out of her. Truffaut has set Moreau up as such with his narrative and she does the rest.

However, still, as the story continues to progress and she marries Jules and they make a life together with a daughter named Sabine, there are other qualities that come to the fore. Namely, her maturity with a hint of sophistication that still leaves space for that same carefree vigor continually coursing through her and garnering the undivided attention of the camera.

In the complete inverse of the film’s title, you find its true attraction and the figure who makes the whole story what it is.  Jules so aptly puts it that she’s “a force of nature that manifests itself in cataclysms.” She’s so very uninhibited.

Thus, Jules will love her for a lifetime and Jim will count her among his very closest companions but still, she is a complicated creature and perhaps Truffaut is playing out his own mesmerization and subsequent befuddlement with women. Catherine is an epitome of that. She has other lovers. She openly cavorts with Jim who wants to love her even as he wants to stay true to his best friend. She constantly does what is least expected but that goes with the territory of Truffaut’s invention.

As such, it is less of a conventional love triangle and more precisely a menage a trois as the French might say. This is not so much about dramatic conflict as it is tragically sad in the end. Because this is a film about friendship as much as it is love and it’s a dream friendship as much as it is a romantic fantasy. Maybe it’s possible for both to exist partially in the forms projected onscreen and yet Truffaut fills both with so much that we easily yearn for.

There’s the song “Le Tourbillon” that Moreau sings and it quite remarkably ties into this film. The words come from her lips gayly, describing a woman who could very much represent Catherine and then a lover who are both “Each blown their way by the whirlpool of days.” There’s not a better way describing the course of this film.

It’s consumed with so many interludes and subsequent shifts that are almost matter-of-fact from the breakout of the Great War to its ultimate resolution or the marriage of Jules to Catherine and her eventual affectionate advances toward Jim.

Within these segments, it occurs to me that the film hardly comes off like a drama. Still, there are moments of comedy and undoubted tinges of bitter tragedy. But what we’re left with is what Truffaut best described himself — a bit of a knowing paradox of tones.

“When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it’s just wonderful.”

It is another of the great tragicomedies of cinema like a Citizen Kane (1941) or 8 1/2 (1963) but there’s no doubt that this is Truffaut’s own rendition and it remains the heart & soul of the Nouvelle Vague for its defining visuals that have ingrained themselves in the cultural landscape the world over.

4.5/5 Stars

Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

Love_With_The_Proper_Stranger.jpegAt first glance, this doesn’t seem like the type of picture suited for Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood. He was “The King of Cool.” She was a major player from childhood in numerous classics. Neither was what most people considered a serious actor. They were movie stars. They had charisma and general appeal to the viewing public.

What we have here is a stark slice-of-life scenario. Even put in the context of her Italian family unit Wood feels slightly out of place. It’s the kind of portrayal that worked for Ernest Borgnine in Marty (1955) and other such pictures. The same if not more can be said of Steve McQueen with his parents. He’s hardly an Italian. But the chemistry is there and that’s almost more important.

Any criticisms or preconceptions aside there must be credit paid to our stars. All power to them for wanting to be in this picture and casting aside what might have been more glamorous material for something that might stretch their acting chops. Because in the mid-50s and onward we were beginning to see a more honest strain of drama in Hollywood films. I would hesitate to call this film complete realism but there’s a candid quality that’s unquestionable.

Love With The Proper Stranger manages to put a narrative to the kind of hushed up realities that needed to be brought to the light. It’s part daring, part matter-of-fact in its actual execution. Because in merely acknowledging its subject matter, even in a minor fashion, it starts a conversation that can lead to some sort of human understanding.

You see, the film opens in a bustling union hall where a freelance musician named Rocky (Steve McQueen) gets paged by someone. He comes face-to-face with a girl. He can’t remember her name but the face is familiar. There’s a smile of recognition. The reason she came to see him catches him off guard though. She wants to ask him to find her a doctor. Because you see, they had a one night stand (the title proves a poetic euphemism) and she’s pregnant. The rest you can put together for yourself. His reaction is not what she wanted.

And so that’s how they reconnect. At first, strained and then looking to gather enough funds to pay the doctor to get it done. They’re genial enough and understanding after the initial encounter. That’s part of what’s striking. Love With The Proper Stranger chooses to traverse a generally understated road in lieu of melodramatics.

Sure, she’s a sales clerk at Macy’s and her family is devoutly Catholic with her older brothers often nagging her to get married. And he’s broke and shacked up with a nightclub dancer (Edie Adams) who runs a doggy kennel in her apartment. Still, that’s all just white noise or at least only shading to what’s really of interest.

One of the most indicative moments occurs when they’re staked out in some god-forsaken rundown warehouse and they open up about romance as they wait for their appointment. Their assertions are meant to make us understand them better but what we are provided is a level-headed dialogue that wears cynicism openly while honestly trying to figure out if love, kisses, and marriage, all those things that the movies and music seem to romanticize are even worth it after all.

During the very same conversation, Wood’s character confesses, “All I felt was scared and disgusted with myself.” Nothing more. Waiting for the bells and the banjos to sound doesn’t work. And when they go to the shady meetup and get funneled to a backroom it’s not any prettier. In fact, it’s probably worse. And it’s these moments that grieve me and pain my spirit. That anyone would have to deal with such an unfeeling environment. It’s not about condoning their behavior or not but being truthful to the way things actually are.

Meanwhile, the film’s latter half is decidedly lighter as if our main characters have settled into the new reality at hand. I suppose that’s the way real life is. It keeps on moving no matter the circumstances. Whatever decisions you have chosen and whomever you pick to live your life with.

Angie rebuffs his gallant proposal of marriage, finds her own apartment, and doesn’t complain about the road ahead. She didn’t need him to fall on his sword or take his medicine. Whatever apt metaphor you choose. That’s not her idea of a sound union. Instead, she tries to content herself with a well-meaning cook named Anthony (Tom Bosley) while Rocky piddles around discontentedly. The directness of the story allows us to dig in; it’s the comic tones of the unwinding romance that guide us to the end. Our leads see it through splendidly with a charming grace that’s collected and still sincere.

Although he will never earn much repute because his offerings are generally low-key, I will continue to do my best in cultivating an appreciation for Robert Mulligan as a director, as well as Alan Pakula. Not that they were quite as socially conscious as a Stanley Kramer or as intent on pushing boundaries like an Otto Preminger but To Kill Mockingbird (1962) and this picture are both statements of quality in themselves.

In fact, it’s rather bewildering that despite the names above the title, an immersive setting in New York’s Little Italy, and a genuine storyline, Love With The Proper Stranger is easily glossed over. Maybe it goes back to our stars. It’s not as monumental as The Great Escape (1963) or The Great Race (1965). And it’s not lauded to the degree of West Side Story (1961) or Bullitt (1966). That’s okay. It has no bearing on whether you enjoy it or not.

Not to undercut everything that I’ve already said but I’ve waited long enough. The final question I was left with is whether or not Natalie Wood was still friends with Santa Claus working at Macy’s. But then again, maybe in the world she finds herself in, Santa can’t fix all her problems. I suppose that’s okay too.

4/5 Stars