Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Sultry, Sophisticated Suburban Affairs of Kirk Douglas & Kim Novak in Strangers When We Meet

In those days of burgeoning openness, when the Hollywood studio system and its all-too-strict production code were beginning to break apart and crumble before our very filmgoing eyes, the American movie industry began to loosen its belt so to speak and start making more sophisticated, sexually speaking, fare.  With a frank boldness to sexuality that had not been seen in Hollywood since the Pre-Code era (and era that abruptly ended in 1934 with the enforcement of the up-til-then neglected Hays Code) many filmmakers began to test the boundaries of what they could get away with.  Billy Wilder was one of the most bold of these directors, making films such as Some Like it Hot, The Apartment and Kiss Me Stupid, all of which took a more mature look at the sex habits of America than almost any other films around.  While Wilder, along with director's such as Sidney Lumet, Otto Preminger and of course Douglas Sirk, the master of the melodrama, were cracking the code, smaller films and filmmakers were also reaping the rewards of a freer filmmaking community.  One of these lesser-known qualities was Richard Quine and his sexy 1960 melodrama Strangers When We Meet.

Strangers When We Meet is the story of a married architect (Kirk Douglas in one of his best, if highly unknown roles) who begins an affair with the beautiful married housewife down the lane (Kim Novak being, well...she's Kim Novak, what else need be said).  Taking on mature themes in a very matter-of-fact manner for the time, Quine's extramarital lovers seem all the more real because of this loosening of the proverbial censorship noose.  Douglas, usually playing characters who are tightly wound, ready-to-explode types, here plays the cool, calm pursuer while Novak is the questioning, uptight, albeit often willing one, afraid to commit to an affair even though deep inside she wants to be the taken woman (a character trait that becomes even more intense when she lets loose with a secret from her possibly sordid past).

Variety had originally said of the film, "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, much the same effect as that produced by a casual daydream fantasy."  This is obviously quite the back-handed (semi)compliment but the metaphor of casual daydream fantasy works as the perfect descriptive.  Quine's melancholy camera and his use of colour and the way he subtly manipulates the widescreen image plays out like a fantasy.  One shot in particular, near the end of the film, as we see Douglas and Novak haloed by the sunset (a very metaphor-fueled sunset of course), makes this idea of casual daydream fantasy a visual reality.  Whether one still considers it rather pointless is a matter of taste.  Poor taste perhaps, but a matter of taste nonetheless (he said with snarky glee).

Actually the film is quite the soap opera, and one must surely be a fan of the melodrama in order to fully appreciate its kitschy charm and rather sordid, sophisticated themes.  Lucky for me I am one of those aforementioned fans of the melodrama genre, so it works out just fine.  The thing that really kicks it in gear though, other than Quine's way around the camera (the director is usually far from the auteur but here he works well) is the acting of the principal players.  Douglas, in probably one of his five best performances (and probably his most understated) is the classic yet contemporary leading man and plays it with his usual cockeyed charm (a charm that often comes off as cheesy in many roles - making the actor just as often seem less than what he really is).  Then there is Kim Novak (who was engaged to the director at the time of filming and would act the prima donna on set) - the epitome of cold-hearted heartthrob.  That woman you want but know it will never end well (just ask Scottie in Vertigo - but perhaps that is more his doing than hers).

Novak's original persona in cinema was that of a good girl but as her career moved on she grew into a deeper, chillier character - but even when she played a vixen, which I suppose she sort of does here (or at least a reluctant vixen), it was one of a seemingly clean demeanor.  Sultry but with a persona of apparent innocence.  Critic Stanley Kauffmann called this way of carrying herself and her character as an "unvaried strangulated hush" - that is certainly enough to get bored architect Kirk Douglas' blood a-boiling.  And speaking of blood boiling, this is not just the Kirk & Kim show.   There are stellar performances by beautiful, sensitive Barbara Rush as Douglas' dutiful wife, comic Ernie Kovacs as a hot-headed, womanizing novelist client of Douglas, and Walter Matthau as a prim and proper neighbour who eventually becomes entangled in the film's ever-deceptive web.  In the end, it is all a sultry, sophisticated suburban affair.

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