Film Talk: “Strangers When We Meet”

Strangers When We Meet (1960)

Starring Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak, Barbara Rush, Ernie Kovacs, Walter Matthau, Virginia Bruce, Nancy Kovack and Sue Ann Langdon. Directed by Richard Quine. From Columbia Pictures. 

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Larry Coe is an architect with a wife (Rush) and two kids. One morning as he’s dropping his kids off at the bus stop with the other parents, he notices beautiful Margaret Gault (Novak) who is also dropping her son off. Larry is hired to build a home for author Roger Altar (Kovacs). Larry is passionate about his work but when he talks to his wife, Eve, about it, she seems not to understand what his job means to him and this depresses Larry. It depresses him to the point that when he next sees “Maggie” at the bus stop, he starts to get ideas.

In Maggie’s home, the passion has departed. She presses her husband, Ken (John Bryant), for intimacy but he doesn’t seem to be interested. This distresses Maggie – to the point that when Larry speaks to her at the bus stop, she is receptive to his invitation to visit the site where Roger’s home will be built. Later, Larry and Maggie meet at an out-of-the-way restaurant, fall in love and begin an affair.

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Larry shows Maggie where the house will be built.

Larry is then offered the job of a lifetime; designing a city in Hawaii. Before his affair with Maggie, Larry would have jumped at this chance but now he ‘s conflicted. Eve finds out about the offer and wonders aloud why Larry didn’t discuss it with her.

Eve begins to try and reconnect with Larry and throws a party attended by Maggie and Ken and also lecherous neighbour Felix Anders (Matthau). Felix notices things aren’t right between Larry and Eve and discovers the affair between Larry and Maggie. Days later, seeing Larry leaving the house, creepy Felix lets himself into the Coe home and violently propositions Eve. When Larry comes home, he’s livid at Felix but Eve stops him cold; why would Felix think I’d be responsive to him? She puts two and two together and kicks Larry out. As he watches his world crumble, Larry considers his future. What of Hawaii and his work? Does he have a chance now with Maggie?

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Strangers When We Meet was adapted from the 1958 novel of the same name by novelist Evan Hunter who also wrote the screenplay. Hunter is better known as Ed McBain under which name he wrote the successful 87th Precinct police procedural novels. As Hunter, he also wrote Blackboard Jungle, the screenplay for The Birds and the novel and screenplay Last Summer which I coincidentally just watched as part of my “Cinema ’69” series.

Director Richard Quine had been an unremarkable actor who had appeared in 1942’s My Sister Eileen – he then directed the Jack Lemmon-Janet Leigh remake in 1955. He first worked with Kim Novak when he directed her in Bell, Book and Candle (1959) and the two teamed again on our film and by this time they were engaged to be married. He would work with Kim again in The Notorious Landlady (1962) and go on to direct other films including Sex and the Single Girl and How to Murder Your Wife.

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Quine was first married to actress Susan Peters. While the two were on a hunting trip, Peters accidentally shot herself in the abdomen. With buckshot lodged next to her spine, she ended up paralyzed from the waist down. Peters later separated from Quine saying that he would not talk to her for days at a time. Despite starring in her own short-lived television series, Peters eventually lost the will to live and starved herself to death in 1952. She was only 31. Quine was later married to Fran Jeffries for four years before divorcing her, citing “extreme cruelty”. Quine suffered poor health and depression in his last days and shot himself in the head in 1989.

Quine was also a lyricist and wrote the words to the song that is sung over the closing credits of Strangers. The delightful score is by George Duning whose work can be heard in countless films. His music was nominated for an Oscar 5 times including for the films From Here to Eternity (1953 and co-starring John Bryant, Ken in our film) and Picnic (1955). On Strangers When We Meet, Duning works with regular collaborator Morris Stoloff. The two had created the sublime “Moonglow/Theme from Picnic” for that film which also starred Kim Novak.

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A great shot of Maggie making a disturbing confession to Larry.

Ya’ll don’t need me to tell you nothing about the legend Kirk Douglas, still going at time of writing at 102 years old. I will say that Strangers When We Meet was followed that same year by Douglas’ iconic Spartacus – both films were made by Kirk’s Bryna Productions. I thought Kirk looked a little tired in some scenes in Strangers and his busy schedule could be to blame. Throughout the first half of 1959, Kirk broke his back making Spartacus, handling many aspects of the mammoth production himself. After only a five-week break, he was back before the cameras making our film with Novak. Strangers would be released first, hitting screens in the summer of ’60. Spartacus would have it’s premiere October 6, 1960 – a year to the day after Kirk started filming on Strangers. Despite maybe not looking his best, Kirk is typically engaged and believable portraying the architect who strays.

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I’ve never been totally sold on Kim Novak as an actress. Her stoic manner, though, suits the character Maggie well. And I’ve gotta say; I don’t think Kim looked any better in her life than she did in this film. Perhaps everything came together; the lighting and camera angles, the make-up, the hair styling. She is absolutely luminous as Maggie and handles the struggles her character is going through quite well. Kim was a star when she made this film, having appeared in the aforementioned films as well as Pal Joey (1957) with Francis and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the film many have called the greatest ever made. During filming on Strangers, Kim was quite bold owing to her close relationship with the director. She was even foolish enough to offer Kirk some acting advice which lead to a strained relationship between the two for the rest of the shoot. She was soon after this film to begin a descent, despite appearing in charming films like Boys’ Night Out (1962) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Kim – like Kirk – is still with us as of this writing, aged 86.

Legendary comedian Ernie Kovacs was an innovative force in television and only made few films, although I have always enjoyed him in North to Alaska (1960). He had also appeared in Bell, Book and Candle with Novak and director Quine but Kovacs’ filmography includes only 10 films. Kovacs is totally at ease before the cameras and that comes through in Strangers. His personality shines. I always have given points to Kovacs for having the smarts to marry the beautiful Edie Adams. Kovacs died in a car accident January 13, 1962 at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills after leaving a Hollywood party. Jack Lemmon had to identify his body and served as an active pallbearer with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. Kovacs had a daughter who was married to a son of Burt Lancaster. Another child, his only child with Adams, also died in a wreck in 1982.

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Ernie Kovacs as Roger; eating and smoking at the same time.

Elegant and beautiful Barbara Rush plays Kirk’s wife, Eve. For me, I always think of her in Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). By the time she was cast in Strangers, she had had a middling if steady career having appeared in films like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and The Young Lions (1958). Her next film was Come Blow Your Horn with Frank and she also can be seen in Hombre (1967) but she later focused on television. She did, unfortunately, return to the big screen in 1980 in the Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music. Her first husband was Jeffrey Hunter and she, also, is alive today at 92. They actually could have a cast reunion, even all these years later.

You all know Walter Matthau, as well. Matthau plays Felix so well that you want to punch him in the neck; he’s sickening. He had many credits under his belt by this point – including the finest film Elvis Presley ever made, King Creole (1958) – but was yet to break through. Strangers started a good run, though; it was followed by Lonely Are the Brave with Kirk again, Who’s Got the Action? with Dean Martin and Charade with Cary Grant. He would emerge as a prominent comedic actor later in the 1960’s, often starring opposite Jack Lemmon.

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Pretty Nancy Kovack in her one scene.

Virginia Bruce appears as Maggie’s mom. She was a prolific actress throughout the 1930’s and ’40’s. I know her from The Invisible Woman (1940) and Strangers is her last proper film – although I have to report that she did reemerge to play the title role in the inexplicable Madame Wang’s (1981). Two “Elvis Women” made their screen debuts in Strangers When We Meet. Pretty Nancy Kovack was in Frankie and Johnny with King and The Silencers with Dean Martin, both in 1966. She also appeared in Diary of a Madman (1963) before turning to television. Nancy’s still around, too, aged 84. Sue Ann Langdon appeared with Nancy in Frankie and Johnny and also made Roustabout (1964) with Presley. Most of Sue Ann’s credits are on TV series and – you guessed it – she is still alive at 83. I’m warming to this “cast reunion” idea. And have you noticed something else? Strangers When We Meet features a Novak, a Kovacs and a Kovack!

My regular readers will know that I love me a good location shoot and Strangers When We Meet has plenty of great exterior shots. At the beginning of the film, the bus stop where Larry and Maggie will meet is shown at 100 N Kenter Ave. in Los Angeles.

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The bus stop, yesterday…
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…and today.

Larry and Maggie begin their affair at the Albatross Hotel and Restaurant. Right on the beach at Malibu, this establishment used to stand at 21202 West Pacific Coast Highway. I have read that it had a reputation of being a place where it was easy for unmarrieds to get a room – which makes it’s use in this film fitting. In an article at Tiki Central, testimony from a former employee strongly disputes the Albatross’s reputation while another person relates the tale of how his mother told him he was conceived out of wedlock there. The lot where the Albatross stood – reputed to be haunted – has been empty for many years; there is a Duke’s restaurant on one side of the vacant lot, a Circle K on the other.

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The Albatross, pictured on June 27, 1967.

The house that Larry builds for Roger is a fascinating part of the film as it was actually built for the film before the cameras. The studio had planned to give the house to Novak and Quine as a wedding gift but the two never married. The 5,517-square-foot, 6-bath, 8-bedroom home has subsequently had many owners during it’s almost-60 years. It was last sold in the summer of 2013 by a lady named Judith to an Iranian couple for $4.1 million. Judith has retained occupancy and will celebrate her 83rd birthday on December 31st, 2019.

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“…(it’s) an old-fashioned soap opera…It is a rather pointless, slow-moving story, but it has been brought to the screen with such skill that it charms the spectator into an attitude of relaxed enjoyment”

The above is from a contemporary review published in Variety as regards Strangers When We Meet and I like the review. Pointless but charming; I’m OK with that. I’ve often described myself the same way. The film has a wonderful look, helped in no small part by the wonderful exterior shooting we have discussed. The plot of this film draws you in. You can see how the principals could fall into their predicaments. Through their own failings, yes, but, while there’s no excuse for infidelity, the plot tries to make you understand how the events of the film could have happened. A film made in 1960 would be forced to show some reason why these spouses were unfaithful; it would have been scandalous for an affair to have just happened.

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Ken feels shame.

In Maggie’s case, she is depicted as a loving wife desiring affection from her husband. For reasons not specified, Ken has an aversion to intimacy. Maggie is half-undressed when Ken gets home from work and all he can do is say “why don’t you get dressed?” When she presses him to say he wants her, to take her in his arms, he says something like “Margaret, we can’t just…” which leads me to believe Ken may be impotent. This situation is presented as Maggie’s “excuse”, if you will. She is still young and vibrant and craves intimacy but her husband cannot provide this. There is also a suggestion that comes from Maggie’s mother that Maggie was perhaps never really in love with Ken. In a conversation that hints at Maggie’s having been born out of wedlock, Mother says she wishes Maggie would “really fall in love” one day. Ken doesn’t count, Mother says, he was “the first nice boy that came along”. Perhaps Maggie, not wanting to have happen to her what happened to her mother, entered into marriage as soon as she possibly could instead of waiting to “really fall in love”. All this is supposed to make the viewer accept that Maggie went outside her marriage for this love.

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Eve and Larry have a beef on the way home from Romanoff’s.

Larry and Eve are in a rut. Or rather Larry is in a rut with his work. He wants freedom as an architect to work on projects that excite him. He more than once asks Eve if she understands, obviously feeling that she doesn’t. Larry’s work defines him and if Eve doesn’t understand his motivations where his job is concerned then that spells trouble.

dont mindBut you know what? That’s it. That’s her only “failing” as a wife – and, really, I wouldn’t call that a failing at all. Beefs happen, little things in your marriage break down and need repair. So, Eve really hasn’t done much wrong and the thing is she rights the ship awfully fast. Later, she comes by the job site, asking questions about Roger’s new home and showing an interest. She’s quite pleasant to watch. When she tells Larry she’s throwing a party – because he’s been working so hard – she’s worried he’ll be upset. She is very relieved when he says he isn’t, kisses him and bounces away. Larry looks after her probably thinking what a swell girl she is and look how he’s treating her. So, really, Kirk’s character has little reason for an affair. I’m worried he’s given a bit of a pass here because of the times. It’s 1960 and he’s a man; the big dog’s gotta eat.

Careful, there are some spoilers coming up. Rush and Matthau play their disturbing scene together really well. Felix is a real scumbag as he makes his obviously unwanted play for Eve. Interesting how this scene is the catalyst for Eve realizing there is another woman. You feel sick watching these worlds tumble as Eve brutally tells Larry to clear out of her life. Viewers can easily put themselves in these people’s shoes and the feeling is unsettling. I was surprised, then, to see Eve go to Larry soon after, crying and saying that she can change; “tell me where I was wrong”.  Really, Eve? I understand; it’s 1960 and it’s dumb to apply modern day thinking to the past but folks nowadays would say that Eve should find someone who won’t cheat on her. Eve breaks down and says she can’t live without Larry. That’s sad because I like Eve.

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Roger’s house is complete and Larry meets Maggie there. He tells her he and his family are going to Hawaii. She says it had to be that way. He expresses his love for her and she drives away. Poor Maggie loses. Larry has a loving wife and together they can fix what’s broken but Maggie can’t be with Larry anymore and she’s stuck with a dud of a husband. That’s sad. Strangers When We Meet is a soap opera, sure. But it’s an excellent movie and you’ll spend two hours feeling all the feels. Additionally, it’s a gorgeous depiction of a bygone era, an era many of us can’t get enough of.

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