Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees learns how a single box of cornflakes gone astray can lead to passion, deception, and being hit on by Walter Matthau.
"Any place you've got a housewife, you've got a potential mistress."—Felix
It's the end of the 1950s, and you know what that means: All the repressed sexuality that's been lurking under the starched skirts and argyle cardigans is coming to a full boil. A descendant of the sordid Peyton Place and similar Technicolor melodramas, Strangers When We Meet is a glossy soap opera about two passionate people whose spouses (say it with me, now) Don't Understand Them.
Facts of the Case
It all began at the bus stop. That's where Larry (Kirk Douglas, A Letter to Three Wives) first sets eyes on Margaret (Kim Novak, Vertigo) when both are dropping off their sons. Then they have a chance encounter at the grocery store. Neighbors in the same small suburban neighborhood, it's inevitable that their paths would keep crossing. But Larry is feeling particularly restless. His career as architect has stagnated, and he finds himself designing buildings that he can't feel passionate about. Now he's been commissioned to build a daring new house for blockbuster novelist Roger Altar (Ernie Kovacs, Bell, Book and Candle), and he's coming to life again. His beautiful but practical wife Eve (Barbara Rush, Magnificent Obsession) doesn't seem to understand why he needs artistic fulfillment, so he instinctively asks Margaret to visit the future site of the house with him.
Margaret, too, has reached a turning point of sorts. Her cool, blasé manner masks a deep need for reassurance and love. Her pleasant but easily baffled husband, Ken (John Bryant) doesn't like to hear the word "passion," let alone act on it. So although Margaret has a dread of becoming like her mother, who earned her contempt by venturing into extramarital romance, she can't resist responding to Larry when he reaches out to her. Soon the two are involved in a passionate affair, carried on in clandestine meetings and whispered telephone calls. Despite their love for each other, however, they must combat guilt at betraying those who love them—and also the knowing insinuations of their neighbor Felix (Walter Matthau, Plaza Suite), an old hand at adultery, who decides to turn his knowledge of their affair to his own advantage.
As I watched Strangers When We Meet I kept reminding myself that this was pretty daring stuff in 1960. At that time, a film in which adulterers are the protagonists—and are portrayed sympathetically—must have ruffled some crinolines. Unfortunately, the daring qualities have faded with time, and although it remains a fairly intelligent look at why two nice people might wind up in an extramarital fling, it doesn't have a lot to make it stand out from your basic Lifetime TV movie aside from the stars and the glossy production values—which extend to fabulous Jean Louis wardrobes for Novak and Rush, as well as an entire cutting-edge house, which we see being constructed over the course of the story. There are gestures toward realism—we actually see Novak in pin curls and an apron—but you'll never mistake this for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
The moments that do make one sit up and take notice are not so much daring as creepy. Novak's character has a disturbing monologue in which she explains to Larry why a young truck driver is stalking her; it reveals a lot about her character's neediness—which practically amounts to neurosis—and Larry's revolted reaction plunges us back into the unenlightened days when women were blamed for being the victims of date rape. Equally disturbing is a scene in which Felix takes advantage of Larry's neglect of his wife by pursuing Eve. This is a standout scene for Rush and Matthau, who generate real tension; I've never before seen such a sleazy side to Matthau, but he makes a horribly convincing s.o.b. His Felix is chillingly cynical, believing that housewives are all ripe for affairs; he even offers Larry unsolicited advice (evidently honed through experience) in the proper technique for cheating. The other primary male supporting character, Altar, is a playboy with a constantly rotation of girlfriends, whom he discusses in their hearing with audible contempt. The cumulative effect, taking into account the many instances in which characters stigmatize women for being sexual creatures (or assume they are sexually up for grabs, as Felix does with Eve), is to make a female viewer feel like putting on a nice sturdy suit of armor. Except for Margaret's asexual husband, who is just plain bland, the most decent male character is, ironically, our adulterous protagonist.
Fortunately, there is one plot development that leaves us with some hope for
relationships between men and women, when Altar has an epiphany and realizes
that he's ready to find a nice motherly woman and settle down. Margaret herself
has a breakthrough when she realizes that her mother is not the tramp she
believed her to be simply because she fell in love with a man other than her
husband, so one character at least learns to be less judgmental about women. The
central romance also has a kind of integrity that somewhat alleviates the
faintly sordid quality of the rest of the film. Part of this is because the
screenplay specifically presents this as an affair of the heart, not just of the
flesh, and the other factor that elevates the affair above the sordid is the
sympathy we have for the characters involved. Larry is an appealing protagonist:
He's an affectionate father, he has a sense of humor, and his need for artistic
expression is convincing. Douglas's performance helps us understand how the
combination of artistic suffocation and domestic boredom could lead him to seek
fulfillment of a different kind with Margaret. For her part, "Maggie,"
as he calls her, has clearly been starving for affirmation. Although everyone
who knows her comments on her beauty, she has to pull compliments out of her
puzzled husband as if with forceps. She seems to be almost cracking from the
force of all the emotions she feels. Her husband, on the other hand, is best
described as "pleasant"; he's the perfect stereotype of the decent
'50s husband, a good provider and considerate companion, but with absolutely no
comprehension of what his wife needs. Apparently devoid of deeper desires
himself, he's so asexual that I couldn't fathom how he had actually produced a
child with his wife.
Since the film relies in part for its interest on handsome California locations and other visually appealing elements, the transfer the film receives is important to its effect, and Sony has done a pretty satisfactory job. Although in some scenes the picture has a grimy look, and age-related defects such as grain and flicker are intermittently intrusive, color is vivid, and detail is good; more crispness would have benefited some scenes, but the soft-focus close-ups on Novak are beautiful. Audio is a respectable mono mix that is free of obvious defects; even the saxophone in the swanky musical score by George Duning comes through well. However, as if the studio is trying to disassociate itself from the film, there are no extras apart from a trailer sequence that showcases two Rita Hayworth films and the Meg Ryan thriller In the Cut.
Fans of Douglas Sirk melodramas and other '50s potboilers are the best candidates for this kind of slick, earnestly soapy entertainment. It doesn't have the emotional pull or the incisive social commentary of, say, All That Heaven Allows, but it does peel away the proper surface of '50s suburbia to offer a glimpse of the corrosion beneath, if that's what you're into. After watching it, you may feel a little dirty yourself, as if you'd just met up with a married neighbor in an out-of-town hotel, but at least the consequences won't be as dire. And it definitely shows what a charismatic, experienced cast can do to make pedestrian material watchable.
Larry and Margaret are free to go try to rebuild their lives. Felix is placed under house arrest and ordered to follow a regimen of cold showers.
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