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Saturday, September 7, 2019

Strangers When We Meet 1960 Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak, Ernie Kovacs



I love watching movies.

I need to clarify what I mean by "movies."

Avengers. No, Please God no. Anything involving men in costumes with superpowers and evil geniuses out to destroy the world. That's not a movie. It's a video game. It's a pox. It's a sign of the end times.

Movies are works of art. Auteurs craft them. Each shadow, the speed of dialogue, the degree to which the heroine's spine is perpendicular to the earth: all of these reflect the auteur's eye, mind, and soul. The auteur is named Capra, Wilder, Ford, Fleming, Scorcese, Demme, von Donnersmarck, Wajda, Sturges, Tarantino, Apatow, Wenders, Aster.

You go to see the movie because you appreciate how this auteur puts the elements of film together and makes you see the world differently.

I don't like horror but I just went to see Midsommar because it was made by Ari Aster and Aster, when interviewed on NPR, said something about the horror genre that intrigued me.

Aster's family had been through a hard time. He realized if he ever tried to tell that story straightforwardly, no one would pay money; no one would watch. The only way he could get people to hear the story of his family's tragedy was to turn it into an over-the-top horror flick, and he did, Hereditary, often described as one of the scariest films ever made.

Ari Aster's Midsommar is about Pagan midsummer festivals, human sacrifice, human venality and Aster's breakup with his girlfriend. I wanted to see the movie, not because I like horror, because I don't, but because I wanted to see Aster's mind, aesthetic, choices and attempts to communicate up there, splayed across a big screen. I wanted to engage with another, intelligent, communicative person. I've been dying to talk about Midsommar ever since, and it makes me crazy that I can't.

Loneliness, more than the chronic pain, more than career failure, prompts me to contemplate _______. People say to me, "Just go to a museum, a church, a ballgame. There are people there."

Yeah.

I'm a Baby Boomer. In the small town I grew up in, outside of the woods, it was just about impossible to be alone. Six siblings, two parents, multiple pets, house with four tiny bedrooms and one bathroom. Walk into the street and – kids. All over. Dodge ball, tag, random juvenile delinquency.

I have very distinct memories of being a kid, surrounded by my own kind, and feeling so lonely. I would mention something I'd seen in a movie, and want someone to respond, and no one did. Devastation. Utter, wintry, all alone, devastation. In a crowd of kids.

If someone handed me a magic wand, and said, "You can use this magic wand to bring about world peace. Or, you can this magic wand to restore the IMDB discussion boards, where fans talked, all day and all night about movies, where you once began a thread to talk about All About Eve, and that very same thread was still going, with substantive interaction, for the next ten years … until the IMDB discussion boards were shut down forever in February, 2017."

I think I'd decide that world peace is overrated, and use that magic wand to restore the IMDB discussion boards. IMDB poster who posted under the name "ecarle," and who refused to reveal his real identity, if you are still out there, you have no idea how much I miss your Hitchcock commentary.

I love found objects – those really valuable castaways you find in the last place you'd expect it. I love watching movies on YouTube and having a good movie-watching experience. YouTube has got to be one of the cheapest imaginable venues for movie watching, especially when you are watching a grainy image on a laptop, and dealing with frequent losses of internet, and the need to reconnect. If you are moved by a movie seen under such circumstances, it's a special experience.

I recently watched, and was unexpectedly moved by, Strangers When We Meet, a 1960 melodrama starring Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak, and Ernie Kovacs.

A long time habituƩ of the IMDB discussion boards, I was aware of the rumor that Douglas raped Natalie Wood when she was 16, and that he may have been connected to the disappearance of a starlet named Jean Spangler, who may have, or may not have, aborted his baby. I have no idea if those rumors are true. No one does except Douglas himself; Wood and Spangler are long gone.

Before I ever learned of these rumors, I found Douglas hard to take. To me, he radiates macho aggression. But, at the same time, I love movies, and I can't deny that Kirk Douglas fills the screen and demands your attention the way only a charismatic Hollywood star can. Who else but Douglas could have played Spartacus?

Jack Valenti said of Kirk Douglas, "Kirk has an overpowering physical presence, which is why on a large movie screen he looms over the audience like a tidal wave in full flood." Burt Lancaster said, ""Kirk would be the first to tell you that he is a very difficult man. And I would be the second."

Douglas said of himself, that he is a "sonofabitch … I’m probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood. And I feel pretty good about it. Because that’s me…. I was born aggressive, and I guess I’ll die aggressive … there was an awful lot of rage churning around inside me, rage that I was afraid to reveal because there was so much more of it, and so much stronger, in my father."

I always saw all that onscreen, and it puts me off. But when I saw Strangers When We Meet on YouTube, Douglas' name, and Novak's name, guaranteed that the film would provide high production values, a literate script, and a compelling film.

Around 1960, the Production Code, that forbad all kinds of graphic, juicy onscreen material, was crumbling. Under the Catholic-inspired Production Code, adulterers had to be punished, with eternal heartbreak, if not death. Criminals were also punished.

The Production Code crumbled because television was taking big bites out of box office profits. Movies felt they had to include more sexy, violent and perverse themes to bring in the crowds lost to TV. So, in melodramas from the late fifties and early sixties, you find a lot of nymphomaniacs, rapes, and other smutty stuff. If you are lucky, and you are lucky in Strangers When We Meet, there is quality material interspersed with the prurient bait for the lowbrow masses.

Larry (Douglas) is an architect. He's comfortably married to Eve (Barbara Rush). Comfortably but not happily married. Eve's started to treat Larry like one of her own kids. She talks down to him and nags him. She's not in tune with his hungers, either sexual or in terms of his own creativity, and his career.

Maggie (Novak) is a heartbreaking figure. For reasons the movie never explains, Maggie's husband Ken has stopped having physical contact with her. One can guess that maybe Ken is gay, or a doll without genitals, but the film offers no clue to either condition.

Maggie is desperate for a touch, a kiss, a kind word. Ken conveys the faƧade of a nice guy, but he's chilly in a way that feels abusive. You want her to divorce him. Maggie and Ken have a young son, perhaps created through parthenogenesis. You guess that Maggie stays with Ken because of the son, but she never explicitly says so.

One day Maggie is leaving the school bus stop where she'd dropped off her son, and one of her neighbors, Larry, on a whim, invites her to a house he is building for a very successful, if quirky, novelist, Roger (Ernie Kovacs).

If this were a better movie, and I like watching not great movies so it's okay with me that Strangers is not a better movie, Larry asking Maggie to accompany him to his worksite would have been motivated in some way.

Maggie is Kim Novak, after all, and she is stunningly gorgeous, like a walking three-layer, whip cream and merengue sex cake. If a man asks a woman who looks like that to get into his car, he's got cheating on his mind. There should be a country music song about this.

I mean, at the very least the script could have conjured up a rainstorm. Larry invited Maggie into his car to get her out of the rain. Just like that guy in the Police song, "Don't stand so close to me."

So the script, if it had been a better script, would have made Larry's motivations clear. Was he fooling himself about what he was hoping for? Was there something about Maggie that caused him to fall in true love with her at first site? We can only guess.

Eventually Larry stops fooling around and makes the big move. Maggie is standing on their suburban sidewalk. Larry drives up in his finned car. He leans out and asks Maggie to meet him at a hotel on the coast near Malibu. It's called "The Albatross." An albatross, of course, is a heavy weight one carries around one's neck.

Maggie knows exactly what this invitation means. Larry is not inviting her to a remote bar at night in order to discuss Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetry.  She's standing there trying to look like the perfect, happy suburban housewife, but you can see the torment on her face. She doesn't want to wreck her marriage, but her sucky marriage is killing her. She speaks rapidly and in whispers, as if that made everything kosher. They agree to an assignation.

Maggie dons a red dress that appears to be painted on. It's clear she's heading for the cheatin' side of town. She walks up to her husband and says, "I don't have to go out. I could stay home with you. We could make made, passionate, bunny rabbit love with each other. I'm Kim Novak, for God's sake. Don't you have eyes? Even gay men would want to have sex with me!"

Ken is unmoved. He actually urges his wife to leave for the evening. No doubt the second she's out the door, he's going to call in a Scout troupe, or a dominatrix, fire up the enema bag, or do whatever he does to get off.

At the Albatross, Larry stares at Maggie as if he were starving and she were dinner. She realizes that she's not a cheater at heart, and gets up and rushes out of the bar. Larry follows her.

People like me who love old movies will tell you that, even with all the restrictions, they were sexier than more graphic films made today. What happens next is proof. Larry exits the bar and finds Maggie standing still in the parking lot. Her back is to him. Her hourglass figure in the tight red dress highlighted. Her coat skims the ground. She's wearing white, high heeled shoes. And she's just standing there. Ready for doggie style.

She walks a few steps, drapes herself across the trunk of a tree and gazes at Larry. She's staring right at him. "Don't," she says. "Please don't," she says. "Don't start this. If you start this, you'll just – " get bored and leave me brokenhearted, she's thinking, but never says. "Don't kiss me," she says. "Please don't kiss me," she says. "If you kiss me, I'll, I'll – " fall in love with you and it will screw up my life, she's thinking.

So of course Larry kisses her. The camera shows only her coat falling to the ground. That's enough, kids. After that lead up, the viewer is a puddle on the floor, and does not require anything graphic. You can watch the whole scene here.

Older Hollwyood movies often communicated what happened in a sex scene with subsequent scenes of natural phenomena: waves crashing the beach was a favorite motif. The subsequent scene here is a bulldozer tearing up the earth. Larry plowed Maggie. Maggie is shown giving her son "more milk." Nothing to be read into there. Wink wink nudge nudge.

Warning: I'm going to reveal the ending of Strangers When We Meet.

What I loved about this movie, in spite of its weaknesses.

Larry and Maggie felt utterly real to me. Yeah, sure, nobody in real life looks like Kim Novak or Kirk Douglas. But these two beautiful creatures, both still alive as of this writing, convey very, very real feelings. I was deeply moved by both performances.

I don't know if the Douglas / Wood rumors are true, but here's the thing: given how aggressively, almost animalistically macho Douglas seems to me, I can believe them. Douglas uses his muscular body, highlighted in form-fitting shirts, and his low-boil-point persona to perfection in Strangers When We Meet. He conveys a physical need and desperation that I think only a really strong man could. A weaker, less macho man – like Maggie's feckless Ken – could not pack so much need into his body.

Douglas visibly aches and yearns for the unattainable Maggie. Unattainable because though he can have her in a hotel room for an hour, he can never have what he really wants – to live with her, as he says, in a house surrounded by a moat that keeps the whole world out. Your heart goes out to him.

Kim Novak is trembling with life as Maggie. She is so tender, so human. You forget you are looking at a legendary film star and begin to care for a desperate woman who is dying for lack of love, and who, foolishly, begins to believe that an extramarital affair with a man who would never leave his wife for her is what can fill her emptiness. She's vulnerable and yet brave, calculating and yet reckless. Externally, a whore, but internally a goddess of virtue. She's struggling to save her marriage even as she primps before leaving her home for an assignation.

I don't think I ever really saw Kim Novak before this movie. I'd always found her cold and remote. I'd seen her in Vertigo, Bell Book and Candle, and Picnic but had not been wowed as I was here. I just wanted to wrap my arms around her and protect her from the big, inevitable letdown that the movie had in store for her.

Ernie Kovacs plays a successful writer for whom Douglas, an architect, is designing and building a house. Kovacs, though sporting a very manly mustache, plays a very feminine author to Douglas' hypermacho architect. Kovacs is nervous and keeps asking for Douglas' approval.

Kovacs is really great, every bit as compelling as Douglas, and I just wish that his character had been more expertly woven into the plot. Kovacs' scenes and the affair story are completely separate, as if from separate films. I wish that Douglas had confided with Kovacs and that Kovacs could have offered some authorial advice on a happy ending to the story.

Kovacs was the child of Hungarian immigrants. He's a chimera. His face, with its thick black mustache and ever-present cigar, is pure Mitteleuropa. You think he's a waiter or a street musician, there to serve goulash or play cimbalom. He has an onscreen presence as cool as Frank Sinatra. His humor was – utterly weird, unclassifiable.

Kovacs grew up in NJ. He was famous as an off-the-reservation 1950s comedian. Watch some of his routines on YouTube, here; they are timeless. At the 1:24 minute mark a man sings "Mona Lisa" in Polish (I think) to a woman taking a bath. There's a visual joke that made me laugh out loud.

Many comedians cite his influence, including David Letterman and Chevy Chase – you can see Chase thank Ernie Kovacs here. Kovacs was killed in a car accident at the relatively young age of 42, and he's considered one of those show business tragedies, like James Dean and Buddy Holly.

Again, 1950s melodramas often featured talk of nymphomania. There's are three creepy subplots in Strangers When We Meet. Maggie's mother had extramarital sex, and Maggie judges her harshly for this. "I'm not a tramp!" the poor woman has to say.

There's another subplot involving a stalker. A man keeps following Maggie. She confides to Larry that the man raped her one night at home. Larry implies that she wanted it. They fight, and separate briefly before their big, final separation.

The Production Code was not so dead that the film could allow Larry and Maggie, two adulterers, to find happiness. Larry and Maggie are at an amusement park, watching a merry-go-round. Larry urges Maggie to, as it were, "shit or get off the pot." Commit to leaving their respective spouses, and uniting as a new couple, or walk away from each other forever. "We can't keep going round and round like this merry-go-round," he says.

Maggie says no, things must stay as they are. She never articulates this, but one gets the sense that Maggie does not want to break up two families, both of whom have minor children at home. Maggie and Larry's kids appear to be around ten.

Walter Matthau plays a creepy pervert neighbor, Felix (not Oscar). Felix sneaks into Larry's home when he's not there, and in a really scary, sickening scene, attempts to rape Larry's wife, Eve. Nymphomania, again. Felix has guessed that Larry is cheating, and Felix assumes that Eve is languishing for lack of sex, and that she will welcome Felix's attentions.

Larry arrives just in time. He punches Felix and recommits to Eve. In the final scene of Strangers When We Meet, Larry and Maggie meet at Roger's house, now completed but not yet inhabited. They walk around the house as if it were their own; in fact a passerby mistakes Maggie for "Mrs. Coe."

Maggie is ecstatic to embrace Larry after their recent separation, but as they hug, all Larry has to do is say the word "Maggie" in a down-to-earth tone, and Maggie knows that it is over between them. She doesn't even ask why. She releases Larry, gets into her car, and drives away.

This ending is another flaw in the film. Larry is given a new life. Felix's rape has the odd effect of renewing love and commitment between Larry and Eve. Larry's boss has offered him a tremendous new project: designing an entire city from scratch in Hawaii. Maggie is still married to Ken.

Professional reviewers don't like Strangers When We Meet. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a low score, and Wikipedia says that when it first came out, reviewers didn't say good things about it. Viewers, on the other hand, are more loving. The viewer reviews at IMDB show that fans were able to find and appreciate the gold in this film: the real characterizations and the rock solid performances.

Strangers When We Meet made me care enough about Maggie and Larry that I "wrote" – inside my head – my own sequel. Larry eventually returns from Hawaii. He has never forgotten Maggie. Of the two, she is the one who has moved on spectacularly. She has divorced her Snow Miser husband. She has cultivated her own gifts as a visual artist. She is living with her son in a fun-loving, Bohemian household, and in a committed relationship with an older man who adores her. She is kind to Larry, but she is no longer his.

A blog post about the actual house Larry was building for Roget in Strangers When We Meet: here

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