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Love With the Proper Stranger (Blu-ray Review)

18 Sep, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Street 9/19/17
Kino Lorber
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Edie Adams, Herschel Bernardi, Tom Bosley

OK, this is huge on a couple levels, starting with the fact that Paramount Home Entertainment could never even find a way to come through with an 1.85:1 rendering for this irresistible primer in megawatt star-power chemistry — and, yes, they did once do a laserdisc. The other reason is purely personal: Love With the Proper Stranger, not the preceding summer’s The Great Escape, is the movie that made my adolescent self want to be Steve McQueen (not damned likely). Who cared about wheels jumping a fence when you could have Natalie Wood, even under the story’s then uncommon Hollywood subject matter?

Which is to say that this somewhat unexpected Christmas-1963 release (eventually rewarded Oscar consideration no doubt played a part) is one of the most pleasurable movies I know to operate from a ridiculous premise: that a guy would have sex with Natalie Wood and not particularly recall it. Eventually, Steve-o’s fog clears a bit, and it had better: Wood’s Macy’s shop girl (Italian) is pregnant from this one-time encounter, and he’s non-flush with the funds you’d expect from a struggling musician in a casual live-in arrangement with an exotic dancer who’s paying the rent (not too happily). From the somewhat surprising atmospherics that a sometimes slick director Robert Mulligan brought to it, one can see parts of this story servicing an Italian comedy of the era or (in its vital street scenes) a French New Wave specimen or, in particular to me, a British working class drama. (McQueen’s philanderer-with-attitude reminds me a lot of Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.) And even though the great Milton Krasner knew all there was to know about gloss and, in fact, got a color-cinematography Oscar for shooting Three Coins in the Fountain, the look here is on a strikingly raw side for a Paramount title of the era.   

The rap on the picture, for those who look at old movies from too much of a 2017 viewpoint, is the inevitable tension we get from a tough situation as seen through a conventional storytelling prism not too long before male-female dynamics and audience tastes were changing at about the same warp-speed. In other words, the commercial demands for at least a little rose-tinting eventually seeps through in Arnold Schulman’s mostly on-point script, though this isn’t a deal-killer (or, really, even close to one) for a couple reasons. One: Even as conceived, Wood’s character is torn between longing for a pre-’63 “normal” life while also wanting to be liberated from her nosy and stifling brothers in a cramped apartment (was it karma that Wood would star just a year later in the rather strange movie of Sex and the Single Girl?) Two: before a final scene that does feel rushed, the penultimate lead-up may be the actress’s strongest in the entire film, and McQueen almost gives as good as he gets. Love got Wood her third and final Oscar nomination, and this was a case where the academy got it right via nods for Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass. Were it not for Splendor, I think this would be her career performance.

The commentary here is by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan from Diabolique magazine and podcasts (Kat & Sam; nice ring), and while it’s closer to carefully researched history than strictly feminist take, the sympathetic observations feel right here. The two are especially good on the low-rent geographical dynamics of where the film’s groundbreakingly frank abortionist encounter takes place: the historic meat-pacing area near the Hudson River where William Friedkin’s Cruising also took place cultural eons later before developers eventually spiffed up the real estate. The scene is really grim but not judgmental and not bereft of credibility, though it never gets the full Alfie treatment from three years later (Paramount released that one, too). And when the two women’s backgrounder is engaged without the film’s dialogue to distract, it’s easy to concentrate on McQueen’s amusingly fidgety body language, which is fun. Apparently, Paul Newman was up for the role as well, which would have made for a different experience and maybe even one as good.

Edie Adams plays the roomie (“Bubbles”) as she segued into character actress mode — paying off her late husband Ernie Kovacs’ real-life debts (and admirably). I always thought she was as talented as he was, which is saying everything, and I’m impressed that she had Love and a somewhat different kind of comic-foil role in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on her resumé the same movie year. Tom Bosley, in his big-screen debut, plays a klutz with amorous designs on Wood — almost overdoing it, though his persistent clumsiness sets up what was probably the biggest laugh line in the movie, delivered by the actress who plays his mother. It’s interesting contrast, though, to Bosley’s wonderfully sensitive “dad” performance in the next year’s The World of Henry Orient, another definitive New York movie of the era. This is my favorite Mulligan movie and more so than To Kill a Mockingbird (the picture he was coming off of), which like the book that spawned it (and one I’ve never gotten through) is too much on the nail for my taste. McQueen and Wood must have liked working with Mulligan because, respectively, Baby, the Rain Must Fall and Inside Daisy Clover would soon follow — interesting movies both but not up to this now under-seen charmer with edge.

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