Strangers When We Meet

STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET puts Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak into an extra-marital affair conducted around tony Southern California locations in this glossy drama directed by Richard Quine. Evan Hunter wrote the script off his torrid 423-page novel about longing, desire and backstabbing in sunny, sinful suburbia, the well-heeled section. Critics dinged it, and a $8,300,000 gross, 39th place at the box office, was less than hoped for, but it’s an underrated, entertaining picture: there was a lot of hot & heavy competition that year revolving around the topics of love and lust. *

“I’m such a phony. I’ve got a drawer full of manufactured labels. Architect, husband, father, man. I sew them into my clothes. The suits never fit.”

‘Larry Coe’ (Kirk, 43) does well as a commercial architect in Los Angeles, enough to live in a nice part of Santa Monica with his wife ‘Eve’ (Barbara Rush) and two little boys. He’s chafing to showcase more personal projects, and gets one when author ‘Roger Alter’ (Ernie Kovacs) commissions him to build a hillside house with some real flair. Larry’s also looking for something to animate desire on a more intimate level, since Eve’s pushiness sours him: that something/someone turns up when he meets a neighbor. ‘Maggie Gault’ (Kim, 26) is also married, but unhappily: her husband ‘Ken’ (John Bryant) is a passionless dud. An affair commences, but keeping it concealed becomes fraught when another neighbor, sarcastic ‘Felix Anders’ (Walter Matthau), picks up on the Larry-Maggie situation, and seeks to use it to his advantage. If you can’t trust the smarmiest guy at the cocktail party, what’s L.A. coming to?

MAGGIE: “Passion isn’t a dirty word, Ken.”  KEN: “Margaret, please–you know I don’t like to have you talk like that.”  How’d you like to play the guy not turned on by Kim Novak?

Well directed by Quine, gorgeous to look at, it’s a swell nostalgia piece of what was then called “mature content”, and a wistful showcase of poshy-posh areas around Beverly Hills like Brentwood and Bel Air, and the seaside retreat Malibu. One major character is the structure Larry creates for Roger: on a parcel in the then-unravaged Santa Monica mountains, the film’s art director, Carl Bellah, along with architect Carl Anderson got to play with building a 3,800 square-foot home. The construction was timed in synch with the film’s plot and shooting. **

Though Kirk & Kim didn’t mesh on-set, they come off fine on-screen, even if it’s a wee difficult to see Douglas as an average guy (granted an architect—melodramas are big on architects to represent upwardly middle-class striver types). Novak was the director’s girlfriend at the time, and he helped coax the right degrees of sadness and yearning out of the insecure actress to imbue her character with the shades of hesitancy, pain and need the role demanded. Matthau, not yet turned lovable slob, was still in his weasel period, and is appropriately nasty. Kovacs offbeat charm and style works well as the mock-diffident, self-kidding writer. The most telling performance comes from Barbara Rush, who at 33 had honed a gift for specializing in poised unhappy wives, poised but brittle: her anger and hurt are the most natural and affecting moments in the picture. George Duning’s tremulous score is okay; sleek but not intrusive, often feeling like he was trying not to to go full-on romantic, as with his work on Picnic.

One of the tag-lines in the trailer for the movie was “The Heavens and Hells of Marital Infidelity!”, which seems guaranteed to unsettle a large chunk of the audience.

117 minutes, with Virginia Bruce, Kent Smith, Sue Ann Langdon (film debut, lighting up her one scene), Nancy Kovack (film debut, steaming up her one scene), Paul Picerni and Donna Douglas.

* Sex, of the sneaky, illicit or otherwise forbidden kind—in other words, some of the hottest—was big in 1960—The Apartment, BUtterfield 8, The World Of Suzie Wong (also directed by Quine), La Dolce Vita, Elmer Gantry, Never On Sunday, La Vérité….

** Hollywood legend/publicity had it the house was to be gifted by the studio as a wedding present to the then-engaged Novak and Quine. Bliss failed to bloom, the property was sold to someone else. Worth $250,000 back in ’60, it still stands in 2021: today you’d be laying out around $10,000,000.

Barbara Rush: “I can safely say that every movie role I was ever offered that had any real quality went to someone else.” Maybe, but she’s aces in this undervalued movie.

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