LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER: Blu-ray (Paramount 1963) Kino Lorber
A girl approaches a guy in a crowded room and candidly announces she is going to have ‘his’ baby. Bewildered and cocky, the guy gets this half-silly grin that registers as abject devil-may-care. Worse, he cannot remember the girl’s name. And so the dance of a very rocky courtship begins in director, Robert Mulligan’s Love With the Proper Stranger (1963). Written by screenwriter, Robert Schulman and independently produced by Pakula-Mulligan and Boardwalk Productions for Paramount Pictures, Love With the Proper Stranger might have had legs as a semi-tragic story of young love putting the proverbial cart before the horse, only to discover the nag had four broken legs anyway. Instead, the picture lumbers between panged vignettes of indecision and some truly hilarious breaks into almost slapstick that, in retrospect, seems to have been excised from another movie entirely. Mulligan is going for a real lower east side affair here. But even the slums of New York come off luminous through Milton R. Krasner’s B&W cinematography. Alas, to believe co-stars Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen could ever pass for children of hard-working Italian immigrants is a real stretch; our stars cast as Angie Rossini and Rocky Papasano respectively. Wood comes closer to the truth of her character than McQueen. He’s too well-groomed (right out of Central Casting with never a hair out of place), and, too slick (the ole McQueen ego at play), too upper west side waspish to convince us of his heritage or sincerity as Angie’s sheepish would-be suitor.
Schulman tries to possess his screenplay with a social backbone. And yet, at every turn he submarines these efforts with happily obtuse vignettes that play like pure screwball and/or slapstick (think Cary Grant meets the Three Stooges), and, into just about every Catholic cliché known to screenwriting 101; the shrieking widow, known simply as ‘mama’ (and played to comic perfection by Penny Santon), chronically aproned and cooking pasta in her cramped little kitchen, and, her brood of hotheaded/quick tempered boys, Dominick (Hershel Bernardi), Julio (Harvey Lembeck) and Guido (E. Nick Alexander) who gallantly defend their sister’s family honor with a display of ‘va fungul’ fisticuffs – guaranteed to settle any dispute with a few black eyes…when the boys are not too busy driving their delivery truck around town. There are moments when Love With the Proper Stranger does have something valid to say. The scene involving Rocky taking Angie to a backroom abortionist inside an abandoned office building, only to back out of what would surely have been a botched experiment at best, is handled with deft authenticity and taut subtleness for the emotional ramifications as Angie, metaphorically and literally, strips away her inhibitions and clothing for the frumpish harridan impatiently waiting, while on the other side of the door a pensive Rocky at long last feels his chivalry rising more affectingly than his manhood. There is also the moment when Rocky, having received his well-deserved shiner from Dominick, takes a man’s honor to the nth degree by setting aside his own aversion toward marriage for the opportunity to genuinely propose to Angie for the first time.
The ending to Love With the Proper Stranger is a bit too fairy-tale-ish to be believed; Angie, having shot down Rocky’s proposal because she wants a guy to be ‘head over heels’ in love with her, hearing banjos and bells, only to discover Rocky waiting for her outside of Macy’s Department Store with a picket reading ‘better wed than dead’, plucking a borrowed banjo and jingling some sleigh bells to reiterate the extent to which he will presumably endeavor to make her happy in the future, wends its way into the annals of Hollywood-ized ‘happily ever after’. Only herein it rings more tinny than true as we pull back on another crowd shot to visually bring us back to the point where the movie – if not the plot - began. Fresh off the Oscar-winning To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), for which Robert Mulligan was also nominated but did not win, herein the director is trying too hard to affect social change and prove his point; that modern love need not follow the time-honored conventions of traditional courtship in order to survive and thrive: hearts and flowers replaced by ‘banjos and bells’.
In fact, the picture has some wonderful things going for it: Nina Varela as the steely-eyed and mistrusting dowager, Mrs. Columbo out to guard her son, Anthony (Tom Bosley) from making a mistake by marrying Angie (a girl she finds excessively clumsy); the avuncular Mario Badolati and buoyant Augusta Ciolli (perfectly cast as Rocky’s doting parents, Elio and Mrs. Papasano respectively). Each offers him money while lovingly threatening to bash him in the face if he tells the ‘other’ parent about their charitable donation. There’s also Edie Adams, as Rocky’s latest live-in, Barbie (a dog-loving hooch dancer whose act ‘the Barbara of Saville’ – get it? – is packing them in at a local gentleman’s club), and finally, Virginia Vincent as Anna, the one-woman liberated arbitrator on an intellectual discussion about ‘the end of romance’ and all other social stigmas and pretense attached to the base act of human procreation. We must also tip our hats to Krasner for his wonderfully realistic B&W cinematography. The location work in Love With the Proper Stranger is outstanding; with art direction by Roland Anderson and Hal Pereira, achieving interiors convincingly to capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tenements and loaded to the rafters with bric-a-brac by set decorators, Sam Comer and Grace Gregory.
In hindsight, it’s the script that give Mulligan and his stars a real run for their money – also, Paramount’s insistence on casting two of Hollywood’s biggest names, thereby deflating whatever verisimilitude the picture might have had into a rather obvious star-driven exercise. Only this time around, star power is not enough to propel the picture to a happy conclusion. Love with The Proper Stranger opens in a vacant auditorium where the musician’s guild is hosting auditions for all available artisans. To bolster his chances of getting a gig, Rocky asks one of the organizers – who also happens to be a good friend – to have him paged over the PA system. A few moments later Rocky does, in fact, here his name called out. Alas, not at his friend’s behest, but for Macy’s clerk, Angie Rossini. She appears in the crowd, slightly chagrined and nervous, with a veiled confession she is going to have a baby. Even though screen censorship was ending by the mid-sixties, the word ‘pregnant’ was still taboo. And so we get a lot of giddy stares, and jumpy ticks, half-cocked grins and tearfully wounded embarrassment; emotions affectingly conveyed by McQueen and Wood as Angie marches off dejected after she realizes Rocky cannot even remember where they first met or the night it actually happened, much less her name. He tries his best to shore up her blustering awkwardness but it’s no use. Rocky’s just too into his ‘Joe-Studly’ self to possess empathy for this girl he has taken advantage of to both their ever-lasting detriments.
A short while later Rocky turns up at Macy’s. To Angie’s surprise, he offers her the name of a doctor who ‘can help’ (code for abortion – again, another word not in American cinema’s verbiage in the sixties). Alas, it’s going to cost the couple plenty: $400.00 (roughly the equivalent of $3,573.83 today). Rocky sheepishly elects to go halfers on the deal. That’s big of him. And so, the couple meets in an out of the way neighborhood to pay up with Carlos (Frank Marth) – a real con, demanding another $50 up front for his services. Meanwhile, back at home, Rocky has reached a parting of the ways with his latest gal/pal, Barbie. Angie is at the breaking point too with her elder brother, Dominick – doting so incessantly on her she feels suffocated and unable to make her own life decisions; even threatening to move out and get an apartment of her own. Dominick and Angie’s mother have been trying to arrange a romance for her with the bungling male wallflower, Anthony Columbo. To get the last fifty for the abortion, Rocky taps his parents; hard-working immigrants enjoying a respite with their friends. Both Mr. and Mrs. Papasano offer Rocky money – although they know not for what – each swearing him to remain silent about their philanthropy. Alas, Dominick and his brothers, with the aid of a schoolyard snitch, have tailed Angie and Rocky. The couple makes a daring escape across a crowded basketball court, taking refuge in a dingy little flat – the place Rocky sometimes calls home. It’s a mess and Rocky realizes he is ill-equipped to feather a nest for an expectant mother.
Rocky asks Angie to reveal to him just one couple she knows of where both the man and woman are supremely contented after a number of years with their decision to join together as husband and wife. As neither seems able to find even single prototype to promote the virtues of marriage, Rocky’s point is proven. Marriage is no good for anyone and definitely not in the cards for them. He and Angie now proceed for their rendezvous with the abortionist. Only the meeting turns out to be inside an abandoned office building; Carlos leading the pair into a room where a middle-aged frump – not a doctor – prepares her operating kit on the floor in less than sterile conditions. While the frump and Angie retire to a separate room Rocky’s anxiety and concern for Angie begins to mount. At approximately the moment he believes Angie will go through with the operation, merely to avoid the scandal of a pre-marital pregnancy, Rocky instead bursts into the room, ordering her to get dressed. The couple tearfully embraces and the abortionist and Carlos hurriedly depart, leaving Rocky and Angie $450 lighter.
Returning home tearful, but intact, Angie prepares to woo Anthony. But she tells him about her ‘condition’. Nobly, Anthony vows to maintain her secrecy until an arranged dinner gathering at his mother’s apartment where he tells Angie he will not only make a formal proposal but also lay false claim to her unborn child as his own. The dinner party is played strictly for laughs; Angie, clumsily burning her hand on a hot bunt cake plate, then spilling her drink all over herself. It’s neither the time nor the place to announce their marriage. The next day, Angie is visited by Rocky at Macy’s. When he asks for her hand, she turns him down. Observing the pair, Dominick and Rocky later have words off camera, resulting in Rocky resurfacing hours later with a real shiner for his efforts to explain himself to Angie’s family. Mrs. Rossini is beside herself, inconsolable even under the advisement of a beloved family priest (Wolfe Barzell). Undaunted by Angie’s rejection of him, and aware Angie expects to experience the euphoria of being asked to marry (a feeling she crudely articulates as ‘banjos and bells’), Rocky takes the reference literally, appearing outside Macy’s, plucking a banjo and rattling some Christmas sleigh bells, much to the amusement of the gathered crowd. Angie tries to avoid him. Only this time, she knows Rocky is sincere. The couple embraces and passionately kisses in the middle of the street as the hurried and harried shoppers pass to and fro beside them, casting curious glances in their direction.
Love With the Proper Stranger is a fairly mangled affair – literally and figuratively. Director, Mulligan would ‘love’ to give us more of the particulars but finds a few clever ways to implicate his couple in a flagrante delicto neither wishes had happened. Sex before marriage and pregnancy out of wedlock; heady subject matter indeed, but particularly for the early sixties. Adding a patina of comedy helps to alleviate the birthing pains by moving Hollywood left of its then conservative center and into the latter half of the 20th century where nothing is long since sacred and likely will never be again. But the comedy is too broad here for its subject matter: a frantic mother, hand-wringing and shouting novenas in Latin from her bedside, a potentially hostile mother-in-law, a mama’s boy who can barely blink when he is around Angie because his heart is fluttering so intensely, a brother who blackens the eye of the expectant gal’s sheepishly grinning Don Juan after he unearths the truth. Let’s be honest here. Angie and Rocky are in dire straits. Besides, Rocky doesn’t really want to become a father. He merely comes around to finding enough reasons not to feel like a heel about it and tolerate marriage to the girl he has already knocked up. Angie doesn’t buy his clumsy ‘banjo-thumping’ confession and for good reason too. But what is an otherwise respectable Catholic girl to do? She’s caught. It’s the stigma of unwed motherhood, marriage to the bumbling mama’s boy, or taming the one-night-stand and rover who did the deed but will likely never grow up. Let’s play house – done! Let’s start a family for better or worse? Oops! Not what either had signed up for initially when the clothes came off. Will it all work out in the end? Hmmmm. Love With the Proper Stranger ends ‘hopefully ever after’ in lieu of any genuine promise of rose-garden happiness.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of this Paramount Picture is a mixed bag, but overall a pleasant surprise. The main titles are riddled in age-related artifacts and some harshly rendered film grain looking digitized. We’ll chalk it up to poor optical printing then and some untoward digital tinkering since, without the added benefit of proper restoration or clean-up. Afterward, overall image quality considerably improves; the gray scale quite solid and yielding a handsome amount of fine details with a light smattering of film grain appearing very indigenous to its source. Contrast is a tad weak. There are no deep and velvety blacks, but a lot of mid-range distinction with only minimal contrast boost. A few age-related artifacts sporadically intrude. But otherwise, the print master is fairly free of dirt, scratches and other time-infested anomalies. Were that someone over at Paramount’s digital library had taken the opportunity to stabilize the gate weave that occurs throughout. At times the fluctuation and wobble from right to left is quite annoying. The audio is DTS 2.0 and adequate for this release. You’re not watching this movie for directionalized, or even an enveloping sound field. What’s here has been cleaned up and plays just fine with nominal crispness. The only extra is an audio commentary by film historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. It’s fairly engaging. We also get theatrical trailers for this movie and a few others Kino Lorber is hoping will whet your appetite. Bottom line: a middling movie with a better than average transfer. Buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)