Strangers When We Meet (1960) ****

Something of a gamble for Kirk Douglas. Unlike son Michael – sexually voracious on screen (and in real life, apparently) in hits like Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992) – Douglas Snr had spent the Fifties primarily as an action star. Should romance feature, it was generally incidental. In several of his most successful movies – 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and Paths of Glory (1957), there’s either nary a female in sight or, Lust for Life (1956),  he’s useless with the opposite sex.   

In pictures where passion was core, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and The Secret Affair (1957), he was the leading man – to Lana Turner in the former and Susan Hayward in the latter – as opposed to the top-billed star. So he had a good deal of catching up to do. It’s generally forgotten, also, that Burt Lancaster took top billing in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and The Devil’s Disciple (1959) and that Douglas had received top billing more recently usually when his company was helping foot the bill, as in Paths of Glory and The Vikings (1958).

Kim Novak, on the other hand, was the sex symbol du jour, second only to Marilyn Monroe in the provocative stakes, molten on screen, leading astray the likes of William Holden (Picnic, 1954), Frank Sinatra (Pal Joey,1957) and James Stewart (Vertigo, 1958).  

That Douglas and Novak strike sparks off each other in this classy well-written tale of illicit love is largely because as much as Douglas emotes passion Novak plays down her inherent sexiness. But it’s unusual for a number of reasons. Female equality, for one, creativity, artistic fulfilment, for another.   

Architect Larry (Kirk Douglas) feels trapped in building routine houses until he persuades unhappy novelist Roger (Ernie Kovacs), imprisoned in the restricted world of bestsellers and lacking critical approval, to invest in an avant-garde house. You couldn’t say Larry is in an unhappy marriage but hard-headed wife Eve (Barbara Rush) tends to trample on his dreams in her pursuit of money. Eve believes their marriage is a partnership in every sense, demanding an equality unusual for the era, a situation hammered home by Roger’s misogynistic treatment of his girlfriend.

Maggie’s (Kim Novak) marriage is arid, husband Ken (John Bryant) lacking passion. Although beautiful, Maggie is insecure and shy. Cold, too, according to her mother Mrs Wagner (Virginia Bruce),  who has been condemned for having an affair. But there’s an early hint that Maggie has taken a similar route, being pestered on the phone.

Larry does all the running after catching Eve’s eye on the school run. Larry, who works from home, can use the excuse of meeting potential clients to slip out at night. Ken is so uninvolved in his wife’s life he doesn’t care if she pops out of an evening, disinterested when she dons revealing nightwear, unable to countenance that she might be meeting another man. Both Larry and Maggie are liberated by their affair, especially as she gives more credence to his artistic abilities than his wife.

We’re pretty much in Douglas Sirk territory, the wealthy suburbs and a simplified color palette with every housewife capable of turning into a hostess at the drop of an invitation to cocktails. You can imagine how this is going to end, but it doesn’t go that route, not even when the affair is rumbled by unlikely lothario Felix (Walter Matthau). There’s Larry’s ambition to take into account, and whether the prospect of building an entire town can match up to the excitement of an affair.

Director Richard Quine (who was Novak’s lover at the time) was on a roll – Bell, Book and Candle (1958), also with Novak, It Happened to Jane (1959) starring Doris Day and The World of Suzie Wong (1960) on the horizon. His direction is mostly spot-on, especially in keeping Novak’s overt sexiness under wraps, and a couple of times scenes really spark.

Felix’s failed seduction of Eve – male arrogance leading him to believe she will enter into adultery to square things up – ends in a stunning composition, the man standing dominant over the female as if rape is the next thing. The crisis scene between husband and wife is played by Eve walking away from the camera.

Solid melodrama with excellent performances all round. Judging from the box office, audiences agreed that Douglas and Novak clicked. Evan Hunter (The Birds, 1963) wrote the screenplay based on his bestseller.

Worth a look for the complexity brought to a standard tale.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

3 thoughts on “Strangers When We Meet (1960) ****”

  1. This is a superb movie, easily the best thing Quine did, and I kind of wish he’d worked more in this genre as this, as well as The World of Suzie Wong, indicates he had a real affinity for melodrama.
    The movie is wonderfully layered and constructed and develops in a way that feels authentic, with a resolution which is bittersweet – full of sadness, hope, defiance and acceptance, much like life itself I suppose.
    I wrote a blog piece on this myself a couple of years ago after a friend had recommended it to me – I’d had a copy sitting on the shelves for some time but I never seemed to get round to viewing it – and it was arguably the best movie I’d seen that year, maybe for a good few years if I’m being honest.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This had been sitting on my shelves for donkeys as well even though I had much admired The World of Suzie Wong. Novak is very under-rated. I see they are planning to remake Vertigo. I had always figured they should do it from the Novak perspective, her horror as Stewart falls in love with the fiction she created but abhors her real self.

      Liked by 1 person

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