Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hello, I Love You, Won't You Tell Me Your Name

Films: Love with the Proper Stranger
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve been ignoring the DVR lately, and that’s kind of a mistake. The unit I have is nearing the end of its life expectancy, and there are a half dozen or so movies that I’ve had trouble locating stored on it. I’d love to say that there was a good, solid reason why I watched Love with the Proper Stranger today other than that, but there isn’t. Honestly, this is going to be a common refrain for the next couple of weeks as I get rid of the last remnants of what I have recorded. Suffice to say that based on the title I wasn’t too excited and that beyond knowing it starred Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen, I knew nothing going in.

Here’s the set up: Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen) is a musician looking for work one day at the union hall when he is paged to the front. Here he meets Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood), a woman he had a one-night stand with some time earlier. Angie is pregnant and isn’t expecting Rocky to marry her, but to at least help her locate a doctor to help with the little problem. Rocky is naturally surprised by this and she storms out, but he tracks her down to her job at Macy’s and tells her that he’s located someone for her. What he doesn’t tell her is that he has located someone through the auspices of his some-time girlfriend Barbie (Edie Adams), whose apartment he sometimes stays at.

The problem with Love with the Proper Stranger is that it has a significant problem with tone. The first two acts of the film are very dark and upsetting. The fact that this is a film that touches even a little on the topic of abortion in 1963 is rather surprising, especially since this is a solid decade before Roe v. Wade. This means that the abortion scene is essentially a back alley procedure done by someone who isn’t a doctor, which is precisely why Rocky breaks into the room and takes Angie out before it happens. It’s almost oppressive in just how heavy this gets for a few minutes, and a great deal of it is sold by McQueen’s best work in the film and a great performance (throughout, but especially here) from Natalie Wood.

Shortly after this, Rocky has a run-in with Angie’s brother, and sporting a black eye, offers to marry her despite his not really wanting to get married. It’s here that we get an early girl-power moment. Angie sees this as her opportunity to make a break from her current life. She moves out of the apartment she shares with her mother and three brothers and gets her own place, because she turns down Rocky’s proposal, not wanting to be stuck in a marriage neither of them really want. It’s here that the movie starts to shift in tone.

What happens is this: Angie decides that she can’t really have the baby on her own, so she more or less pursues a restaurant owner named Anthony Columbo (Tom Bosley) who has been interested in her in the past. She’s decided that security and stability is a good substitute for romance (what she calls “banjos and bells”). But, at the same time, Rocky has decided that he likes her, and she seems to have some feelings for him despite turning down his marriage proposal. So, in the last 20-30 minutes of the film, we have to go from a creepy back room abortion to a lighthearted romantic comedy complete with a “they’re falling for each other so they have a big argument” scene followed by a goofy rom-com gesture to wrap it all up.

It’s a shame, because it all feels like a cheat. When I do a review, I’m very specific with the tags I use for each one. In addition to the name of the film itself, I include the director(s), any Oscars it was nominated for, and genres. This is one I have listed as both a drama and a comedy. The drama is the first two acts. The comedy is the third, and the two never really cross paths. It almost feels like two films, or a “very special” episode of a sit-com followed by a normal one.

What this means for me is that I have some issues with this nominated for Best Original Screenplay, because the biggest problem in the film comes directly from that screenplay. The other nomination with which I’m concerned, Natalie Wood’s, seems a lot more warranted. Wood was capable of really intense dramatic turns and often seemed to play characters like Angie who were significantly troubled in some way and fighting through it. I like Wood’s performance a lot. I tend to like Steve McQueen, too, but he feels a little miscast here. McQueen was a good enough actor and generally cool enough to pull off a role outside of his wheelhouse like this one, but I’m still not convinced he’s perfect for the part.

Ultimately, Love with the Proper Stranger starts out to be almost a social commentary and ends as something that has the emotional depth of a saucer. That’s depressing, because if it had stayed with its original tone, it would have stared June off with a real bang. My guess, although it is just a guess, is that this might be why this film seems to be relatively unknown.

Why to watch Love with the Proper Stranger: Natalie Wood.
Why not to watch: The third act doesn’t fit with the first two. At all.


  1. I can see your point about the wavering tone but I think the film's makers saw this as ultimately a romance between two superstars and assumed, probably rightly, that the public would expect an ending along the lines of what they give us. Had they stuck with the initial darkness and a more realistic ending it would have been an interesting but very different film that would have disappointed both stars fans and honestly with a title like this who could blame them.

    On paper I wouldn't have expected Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen to work so well together. Their onscreen energy is very different but that helps, his flintiness meshing with her grace but there's a spikiness to their interplay. McQueen does well by his character but the movie belongs to Natalie Wood. Love her though I do she could be a variable actress but when she connected with the character as she does here and in Splendor in the Grass she was extraordinary, you just can't envision anyone else doing the part as well as she.

    Though the focus is heavily on the leads the supporting cast, in particular Edie Adams and Herschel Bernardi, add flavor to the film and the location shooting in 60's New York City give the picture a distinctive feeling.

    I'm a bit mystified by the movie's obscurity, its leads could hardly have been bigger stars, both still have a lot of fans and it certainly has an Oscar pedigree to back it up. I wonder if it's some sort of rights issue that kept it from view for so long.

    1. I can see that, and really, it makes perfect sense. If we're going to have a movie with Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen and we're going to imply that the two have knocked boots, well, we've got to end with them together. I don't really have a problem with that. Since that's going to be the case, though, maybe the first two acts shouldn't be so heavy and dark. There's a lot that can be done to lighten this up, because it feels like a gritty, realistic drama for about 75 minutes and then it becomes wacky romance pranks.

      Wood was absolutely the right call for this role and she nails the part of Angie perfectly. I tend to like Steve McQueen as a general rule and I don't hate him here, but this does seem out of his comfort zone in a lot of ways. When I think of him, I tend to think of The Cincinnati Kid as sort of the quintessential McQueen role. Smart, but reckless, dirty, and while easy to root for, perhaps not so deserving of being rooted for. That may just be me, though, because that description doesn't fit a lot of his more famous roles. It's how I tend to think of him, though, and maybe there is a little of that in Rocky Papasano.

      As for its obscurity, I don't really know. There are plenty of films that have been unfairly forgotten and now are unbelievably difficult to track down.

  2. I haven't seen this film, but I don't necessarily object to a two-tone approach to a story. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect it's something of a subgenre or a subcategory in the list of story types.

    There's a Korean film called "YMCA Yagu Danji," which is initially a comedy about the arrival of baseball in Korea, but which then turns into a drama about the Japanese occupation. I thought the shift in tone was strange at first... but then I saw "Hancock," a superhero movie that also begins as a comedy before turning into a mythology-saturated cosmic drama. I really liked "Hancock" despite the critical hate it received, perhaps because of my religious-studies bias. The religious trope of the "divine pair" was given a twist when it turns out the pair can't remain with each other if they each hope to survive. Anyway, my point is that I thought the radical shift in tone actually worked for "Hancock" (and, arguably, for "YMCA").

    That being said, I don't know how I'd handle a shift from drama to comedy, such as apparently happens in "Proper Stranger."

    1. I disliked Hancock for exactly this reason. If it had stayed on the basic story of a drunken, disheveled superhero trying to come back from that, I'd have loved it. I thought the twist pulled it out of something that could have been really original and interesting.

      If this had blended the drama and comedy, it would have worked. It doesn't at all, and so my mental/emotional gearshift just didn't handle the change at all.