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September 12, 2017

Love with the Proper Stranger


Robert Mulligan - 1963
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Considering the source, maybe this story should be taken with a grain of salt - as Frank Capra tells it, the film A Hole in the Head was originally about two Jewish-American brothers as was written in Arnold Schulman's screenplay. While there was no change in the casting, with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson as the brothers, Capra decided two make the brothers Italian-Americans. In Love with the Proper Stranger, the characters are written as Italian-American. Aside from Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen, we have a trio of Jewish actors - Herschel Bernardi, Harvey Lembeck and Tom Bosley in three significant roles. One of the aspects not discussed regarding this film is that in addition to the push and pull between a kind of filmmaking that is more street-bound versus the expectations of a Hollywood produced film with two major stars of the day, is the sense of interchangeability of certain ethnic groups as part of that narrative. It also takes a certain leap of faith to see Natalie Wood as the sister of Lembeck and Bernardi, or Steve McQueen as a paisano, especially when seen with his on-screen parents, and yet it is the undeniable sincerity that makes Mulligan's film work even when a closer examination would indicate otherwise.

What also struck me, many years after my last viewing, on late night television, coincidentally with friends in New York City, is Steve McQueen's performance. Frequently lauded as the King of Cool, McQueen's character of Rocky Papasano is anything but cool. You can sense the wheels slowly turning as Rocky first learns from his former one-night stand, Angie Rossini (Wood) that she is pregnant. Rocky is a small-time musician just trying to grasp some tenuous sense of responsibility. He even admits that he's not keen on marriage, although he is willing to do "the right thing". Angie is trapped between traditional expectations of her working class family and fear of actually being independent. Still, she is clear-headed enough to consider having a child out of wedlock rather than a loveless marriage.

Seen in retrospect, the characters of Love with a Proper Stranger are proxies for the artistic and cultural conflicts within the film itself, not quite based in reality, but not a studio based film taking place in an artificial New York City. The real Macy's department store plays itself, at least in the exterior shots around 34th Street. Those more familiar with New York City might recognize Tompkins Square Park, while those who have been around longer will note a scene shot in what was the Meatpacking District. Angie and Rocky meet Rocky's parents in the shadow of the United Nations building. I'm not sure whether the choice of footage was an intentional "in-joke", but behind McQueen and Wood, in a taxi, is a traveling shot of mid-town Manhattan at night that closer examination indicates was filmed in October 1957. Freeze frames and minutes of research followed reading the marquee of the Trans-Lux East theater, then showing Melbourne Rendezvous, a documentary on the 1956 Olympics. The stage production of West Side Story is playing at the Winter Garden theater, while a billboard touts voting for Robert Wagner, the New York City mayor who shared the same name as Wood's former husband at the time. Great care was taken with the interiors, the low-rent homes, which all look lived in, and resemble the kind of modest housing I and several of my friends had known, with everything crammed into a 400 square foot studio apartment, or a curtained alcove was to be a separate room.

The commentary track by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan is certainly worth a listen. I was surprised that they were chosen as my familiarity with these two writers is in conjunction with horror films. Aside from discussing how Love with the Proper Stranger can be considered a transitional film, when some Hollywood filmmakers were pushing against the Production Code and attempting to make films similar to those by their European contemporaries, they also touch upon shared affinities with British "kitchen sink" films and Italian comedies.

I'm not quite as certain as Ellinger and Deighan regarding Robert Mulligan as a "forgotten" filmmaker. Certainly, his strongest period was the decade between To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, ending with The Other in 1972. What I find most interesting is that even with the commercial and critical success of Mockingbird, that Mulligan chose to make mid-budget, character driven films. Somewhat similar in wanting greater artistic freedom, Natalie Wood, like Robert Mulligan, was eager to use her box office success as a means of breaking away from the studio bound films that previously defined their respective work.

love with the proper stranger  polish poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 12, 2017 06:28 AM