Strangers When We Meet

This is a story about building a house. Is that too glib? Perhaps it sounds like it is, but it’s not meant to be. Would it be better if I said it’s about lack of fulfillment? Well, that’s true too; it’s a movie about both, and at  heart it’s a movie about people in love. All of these elements converge in Strangers When We Meet (1960), separate and unconnected when they initially come together, just as the title itself suggests, fuse and then diverge again at the close. Still, that climactic separation is not quite as clean or as complete as one might expect – after all, nobody and nothing can remain unchanged and unaffected by their experiences.

The post-war suburban idyll, that’s the image we’re first presented with. A peaceful and prosperous looking street gradually filling up with chattering parents and children bustling along to the bus stop. They gossip and exchange small talk, bid a temporary farewell to the kids and then start to drift apart again, off to resume their day as the strangers they had been a few minutes before. But not all of them; architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) lets his gaze linger a touch longer on the demure yet voluptuous Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), and she discreetly returns that slow-eyed appraisal. So there we have it, those tiny hairline cracks in the veneer of prim middle-class respectability are suddenly exposed to the glare of the early morning sun. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to go into huge detail regarding the plot here. Suffice to say that Larry and Maggie are both less than satisfied in their lives; she is married to a stiff and undemonstrative man while he feels suffocated by the twin pressure of unrealized professional potential and a wife (Barbara Rush) he blames for stifling his creativity. Therefore, we have two people struggling with what they think are unfulfilled lives, ripe for romance and risk. The trigger for it all, what tips the balance, is the aforementioned house. Larry has been given a commission by a bestselling novelist (Ernie Kovacs)  to construct his dream home – something he seizes onto hopefully, as a drowning man will snatch at anything buoyant. It’s this that actually brings Maggie and Larry together, the building of the house proceeds alongside the blossoming of their illicit relationship, with its completion resulting in… Well, watch it yourself and see.

Director Richard Quine had been making a succession of mostly light comedies throughout the 1950s, with a couple of films noir such Pushover and Drive a Crooked Road thrown into the mix. Bearing that in mind, a melodrama in the mold of Douglas Sirk would appear to be an odd project for him to take on. For all that, it works very well indeed, with Quine tackling the serious themes with skill, tact and sensitivity. He never allows it all to become too broad, overheated or overwrought. And visually, he paints  from an exciting and evocative palette as he and cinematographer Charles Lang Jr light, frame and color the movie beautifully – from the marvelously tinted and shadowed first “date” for the clandestine lovers to the warm autumnal mellowness of the final scene, and through it all Ms Novak’s costumes progress from brazen scarlet to virginal white later in the movie, indicating a journey back to spiritual purity. All in all, an excellent handling of cinema’s own special syntax.

So to the writing, the solid core of any piece of filmmaking and frequently the area where the most significant strengths or weaknesses lie. In this case it comes from the pen of Blackboard Jungle writer Evan Hunter ( a man I’m more familiar with for his 87th Precinct books under his other pseudonym of Ed McBain) and adapted from his own novel. As I said in the introduction, it’s a movie about building a house and as such needs a firm foundation to anchor it. Indeed the characters themselves comment on a few occasions about the precarious placement of the house, half joking that it may all come crashing down. And here the architect is seen to be really constructing his building for the woman he loves; she appears to have inspired it and even if he’s not fully aware of this himself, I think it ought to be clear enough to the viewer. The tragedy here is that he’s building this for someone else to occupy, which leads back to the accompanying theme of lack  of fulfillment – the entire premise of his love can never truly be fulfilled.

Still, it’s not quite as bleak as all that. I can only offer my own interpretation but I think  that, ultimately, Hunter wants to put across the idea that the act of loving, both the physical and the emotional, are as close to personal fulfillment as anyone can hope to arrive. That it may not always be a success or be directed towards the right person is perhaps irrelevant. Some will be lucky, they will connect with that ideal or perfect match, but for others the knowledge that they were able to touch on a form of perfection in an imperfect situation may actually be enough, or at least be enough not to negate that love which was but briefly shared.

The last time I wrote about a movie starring Kirk Douglas was on the occasion of his 103rd birthday. Since then he has sadly left us but in doing so he also left behind a wonderful legacy of performances to be enjoyed. He was of course a front line star, a man who seemed as big as the movies themselves yet versatile enough to be wholly believable in whatever role he took on. As an increasingly embittered middle-class man drifting into dissatisfied middle age, he’s never less than credible.

There’s a nice degree of subtlety involved in Douglas’ differing interactions with both Barbara Rush and Kim Novak, as wife and mistress respectively. Both actresses bring a lot to the movie too, Novak has the bigger role with more screen time and she uses that enigmatic quality to good effect – incidentally, this was the third of four films she made for Quine – and the hesitancy and uncertainty she tapped into so well in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is in evidence again. Rush has to wait till the third act to get her big moments and handles them just fine, notably the creepy confrontation with Walter Matthau’s two-faced neighbor. Matthau himself is delightfully sleazy and oily in his role, taunting Douglas during the pivotal barbecue scene before later making his move on Rush in the literally tempestuous climax. A word also for Ernie Kovacs, someone else who was used on a number of occasions by Quine. There are only hints at his quirky comedic side as he gives us an interesting take on the self-doubting writer, a successful man who is every bit as much in search of fulfillment, primarily the artistic kind in his case, as any of the other characters. The fact is that pretty much everyone in the movie is living their own variation on the American Dream; the problem is it’s giving most of them sleepless nights.

I’m not sure if Strangers When We Meet has been released on Blu-ray – someone will no doubt set me straight on that – but it is freely available in multiple locations on DVD. I’ve had the Italian release for some time but only recently got around to it, and I’m very pleased that I did. The movie has, to my eyes anyway, been presented very well and the marvelous Scope  image is highly immersive. The fact is of course that the story itself draws you in with its touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lost people searching desperately for meaning, fulfillment and genuine love.  It really is a rich, layered and intelligent piece of filmmaking, a joy to watch and one I’ll most certainly be revisiting.

Detective Story

Cinema and theater, two near relatives in the visual/performance art sphere, both well suited to the presentation of drama via their shared familial traits while also exploiting their own distinctive characteristics to spin their yarns in subtly different ways. In brief, theater is all about intimacy and immediacy – capturing the essence of the moment in an almost tangible way – whereas cinema, somewhat paradoxically, uses its inherent distance to draw us in through the broader visual splendor. The fusion of these two competing yet complementary forms can have mixed results, largely dependent on the scope of the production and its ultimate goal. At worst, it can descend into a static talk-fest, trapped by structure and a vague sense of claustrophobia. On the other hand, a clever filmmaker can use his cinematic bag of tricks to create the illusion of breadth without sacrificing the feeling of closeness associated with the stage. William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) makes a reasonable fist of striking an equitable balance.

In a nutshell, we’re witnesses at the wake and funeral of one man’s humanity. It opens on a bustling New York street and quickly moves indoors, into the precinct house that will form the backdrop for the bulk of the story. We’ve seen this a thousand times; cops and criminals coming and going, some chirpy and others dejected but most just mired in the routine of their everyday lives. Gradually, the focus is drawn to Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a superficially typical detective, cocksure and confident in his professional and personal life. Yet right away, there are hints of something not ideal as he shares a quick kiss with his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). A snatch of conversation, an apparently throwaway line suggests that the All-American wholesomeness on display may be misleading. And so it proves to be as the various characters, from a ditzy shoplifter to a lovestruck embezzler sharing the squad room with genuinely vicious hoodlums, orbit the core drama that will force the McLeods to confront their own inner selves.

Rather than spend a lot of time on the plot and how it develops, I’d prefer to mull over some thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this movie again. To begin, I liked Wyler’s unobtrusive direction and the way he uses Lee Garmes’ cinematography to contextualize not only each scene but the movie as a whole. Wyler can, I suppose, be seen as one of those classic era heavyweights who tended to be associated with “important” pictures. We’re talking “message movies” and that phrase may well evoke thoughts of Stanley Kramer and others at their most ponderous. Still, that’s not entirely fair for these people knew how to shoot a film with skill and artistry too. Here the theme is the impossibility, or maybe the undesirability, of pursuing  purity on an emotional, intellectual and philosophical level. McLeod is set up as a man striving to become a paragon. The story charts the deconstruction of this effort, finally highlighting the hollowness at the heart of it all. And Garmes’ photography, especially his deep focus shooting, keeps the viewer aware of the satellite stories circling the main event, thus preserving the intimacy of the theatrical experience while simultaneously adding a wider cinematic perspective.

I started off this piece referring to the different approaches cinema and the theater take to the same material and those thoughts were always with me as I watched Detective Story. The origin is a stage production, written by Sidney Kingsley, and that aspect is always there, mainly in the restricted setting but even in some of the performances too, to a certain extent anyway. The stage, with the necessity to project calls for a bigger performance, and the use of a different set of acting skills. Cinema is a whole different matter; the giant screens and the possibility of using close-ups, magnifying even the least significant twitch a thousand times, mean more care, control and minimalism are the order of the day. As much as anything, it’s the size of the performances that delineates these forms.

A simmering presence at all times, Kirk Douglas has always been capable of tailoring that size to the demands of a range of roles. I think he was generally at his best when working with strong, experienced directors and the part of McLeod demanded he tread a fine line, touching on the explosive and emotive without straying too far into bombast. His character is ruled and driven by an adherence to rigid principle and moral fundamentalism. This quest for purity has twisted his love and seen it mutate into a passion for vengeance, of the type that has the destruction of the soul as its final destination. It must have helped that the more powerful scenes had to be played against the assured Eleanor Parker. She provides the emotional center of the movie, grounding it and lending it meaning with dignity and empathy.

If the inherent theatricality of the roles has been harnessed by Douglas and Parker, I feel that Joseph Wiseman kept a looser grip on the reins.  There’s a loudness about his work here, and that even goes for the times when he’s not speaking a word, and a tendency to succumb to self-indulgence. He’s very definitely performing, is fully aware of the fact, and wants to make sure everyone watching him knows it too. This could have overwhelmed the picture, but it’s a credit to the measure and subtlety of the likes William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, Craig Hill and Frank Faylen that an equilibrium is maintained. And if I haven’t made individual reference to Lee Grant, George Macready, Horace McMahon and others, well that’s not to say their work is any less deserving of mention.

Personally, Detective Story has always been an enjoyable watch for me, powerful without being preachy and with a timelessness to the core theme to ensure it remains relevant. It’s never, to the best of my knowledge, been released on Blu-ray but the DVD  should be easy enough to track down and, besides, it looks excellent in standard definition.

Finally, I find it very pleasing too to be able to post this on the day the movie’s star Kirk Douglas turns 103.

The Bad and the Beautiful

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Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.

Seeing as Kirk Douglas celebrates his 100th birthday today I wanted to make a point of featuring one of his movies to mark the occasion. With one of the great movie stars I figured it would be appropriate to choose a movie about movie-making, not only one of the best of that little sub-genre but one of the best Hollywood has produced. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a carefully crafted piece of work, episodic in structure but with an organic, flowing quality that ensures scenes and sequences segue naturally to provide us with a portrait of a man both shaping and simultaneously being shaped by the cinema. Sounds like a perfect role for Douglas, doesn’t it?

If one wanted to be glib, it could be said the film is the story of a phone call. In fact, it  starts with  a series of telephone calls, three to be exact and each one is rejected with something approaching relish. Three calls to three Hollywood figures, all of whom take pleasure in telling the party at the other end of the line to take a running jump. That guy at the other end of the line is Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), once a big-time producer but now reduced to hearing casual brush-offs across a long distance line. So we’ve got a good hook right here, you do tend to wonder why a man should be summarily dismissed in this fashion. Curiosity is such that we want to know what a man like this has to say, and by the end of the picture those on the screen clearly share this feeling too. In the meantime, we have the build-up, where studio executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tries to persuade the director (Barry Sullivan), the leading lady (Lana Turner) & the writer (Dick Powell) to at least take Shields’ call and give their collective answer on whether or not they are prepared to work with him one more time.  So, this trio gathers in Pebbel’s office while he, through flashbacks, recalls the way their lives and careers became entwined with that of Shields, and why they feel the way they do about him.

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Hollywood thrives on narcissism, it loves to look at itself and can’t resist encouraging us to look at it while it indulges in this introspection. You could say that’s indicative of the all-consuming vanity of the movies, the conviction that audiences will be fascinated by the chance to peek behind the cameras and glimpse the artists and technicians at work and play, that there’s no drama as compelling as the everyday lives of the filmmakers themselves. And I guess they’re right, there’s always been a market for celebrity watching and this has shown no sign of abating any time soon, if anything it’s more intense than ever these days. We sometimes hear about stripping away the glamor but the classic Hollywood exposés didn’t really do that, sure they showed the less savory side of the business and those involved in it but even so they couldn’t help making it look good. As the title of this film suggests, there are some rotten people on screen but they and the world they inhabit remain beautiful and captivating. The Oscar-winning Charles Schnee screenplay focuses on the ruthlessness, the lack of scruples of Shields, the way he’s consistently used and manipulated his colleagues to attain success. Yet, for all that, despite the duplicity and the betrayals, the milieu holds our attention and we’re never allowed to forget that Shields brought success even to those he hurt.

Director Vincente Minnelli clearly enjoyed turning the cameras around since he, and Douglas, would return to the theme 10 years later when they made Two Weeks in Another Town, again scripted by Schnee and produced by John Houseman. He’s always going to be best remembered for his musicals but it has to be said he had a marvelous talent for well-judged melodrama – this movie, the aforementioned Two Weeks in Another Town, Home from the Hill and the dazzling Some Came Running are significant artistic achievements and add up to a highly impressive mini-filmography by themselves.

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Kirk Douglas was second billed in The Bad and the Beautiful behind Lana Turner and earned himself his second Oscar nomination. He didn’t win (losing out to Gary Cooper in High Noon that year) and claims in his autobiography to have been surprised by the nomination, believing his roles in Wyler’s Detective Story or Wilder’s Ace in the Hole were more worthy of such an honor. I think this says something about the way Douglas views his own work, seeming to prefer the more driven and less sympathetic parts. While there is much to dislike about Jonathan Shields, it’s said that Minnelli worked on Douglas to bring out the nicer side of the character and tone down the more explosive and less likeable aspects. Which is not to say he doesn’t explode at any point – he does have two fairly intense, in-your-face scenes opposite Lana Turner, but it probably wouldn’t feel like a proper Kirk Douglas film if they weren’t there.

Lana Turner wasn’t an actress who ever impressed me all that much, meaning she was always someone you noticed in a movie (her looks kind of demand that) but whose roles were frequently less memorable, with a few notable exceptions. I think The Bad and the Beautiful ranks as one such exception. The fact she was playing an insecure, alcohol dependent star was an advantage as it required a degree of fragility and vulnerability that Turner was able to convey successfully. In terms of awards though, the big winner among the actresses was Gloria Grahame, who scooped the Oscar for best supporting actress. Grahame was a terrific screen presence, sexy and credible in just about everything I’ve seen her in. Her part in this film is a small one, confined to the section with Dick Powell, yet she doesn’t waste a moment of the time she has. Powell was fine too as her cynical husband, adding an intellectual spin to the kind of insolence he had down pat by this stage. I generally like Barry Sullivan, he was one of those guys who could be a hero or villain (or even something in between) quite effortlessly. He was good enough as the director who sees his idea stolen but it’s an undemanding and perhaps a bit of a thankless part under the circumstances. And there’s plenty of depth in the cast – Walter Pidgeon, Leo G Carroll, Gilbert Roland and Paul Stewart all make contributions.

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This is a movie where some people like to see if they can pick which cinema personality each of the main characters was based on – Douglas’ lead appears to be a composite of sorts with the characteristics of at least two producers (one of whom is a cult favorite) on view. Of the others, some are pretty obvious (Lana Turner’s part, for example) while others (like Barry Sullivan) are less so. I won’t go naming any names here – it might spoil a little bit of the fun for some and anyway the curious can easily search online for clues/opinions. That’s just trivial stuff though, the movie provides a masterclass in professionalism and polish where there’s next to nothing to fault in the direction, writing, photography (another Oscar there for Robert Surtees) and acting. The Bad and the Beautiful is an extremely smooth and classy piece of filmmaking, Hollywood writing its own lore and having a good time doing it. The film is easy to find and looks good too, at least my old Warner Brothers DVD does. Viewed for the first or the fiftieth time, it still satisfies.

It’s a rare thing to be able to post something on the occasion of the 100th birthday of a living screen legend, a bona fide star of the Golden Age of cinema, and it gives me a real kick to be able to do so on the day Kirk Douglas hits three figures – congratulations to him and may he see many more.

Two Weeks in Another Town

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Introspection can be both self-indulgent and revealing, turning the gaze inward in search of some truth that seems elusive in the outside world can bring rewards, perhaps most notably for those whose business it is to present a facade for public consumption. It shouldn’t be all that surprising then that Hollywood, where dreams and illusion are daily spun from the dancing lights of the projector, periodically turns the cameras around to focus on itself. There’s something almost perverse about the industry’s need to pick away at its own glamorous veneer, as though it were prodding us in the ribs and daring us to confront the artifice at its heart. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) was Vincente Minnelli’s second bite at the hand which fed him, following the previous decade’s The Bad and the Beautiful.

Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) is a movie star, one of that glittering breed idolized and worshiped by so many. Although it’s perhaps more accurate to say the Jack Andrus we see at the beginning was a movie star, a subdued figure strolling ineffectually round the grounds of the psychiatric clinic where he’s staying. The scar on his face, a memento of the events that led him to his current abode, has healed. However, it’s as nothing compared to the raw wounds he still carries around inside. His doctor says he feels Andrus is fit to leave, not necessarily cured but able to leave all the same. And there’s a hint of hope for the future too, a cable from his old director asking him to fly out to Rome for a small part in his latest production. But we’re talking about the movies here, where nothing and nobody can be taken at face value, and the truth is that Andrus is essentially washed up. The director, Maurice Kruger (Edward G Robinson), doesn’t really have any intention of using him on screen. Basically, it’s a ploy, partly as a kind of sop for Kruger’s guilt over his involvement in Andrus’ breakdown. If our star has hit bottom, then the once great director is headed in the same direction, although his decline is slightly more graceful and a little less dramatic. The picture represents something of a last bid for glory for Kruger, and it’s in danger of being derailed by the ruthlessness of his hard-headed Cinecittà producer. Standing between him and the prospect of failure and humiliation is Andrus, the man he first built up and then destroyed. So what does he do? He tosses this one-time star a few crumbs from his table, hoping that the hunger of a starving man will prove his salvation. To Andrus, the vital but seemingly demeaning task of supervising the post-production dubbing is like a slap in the face initially. Still, the lure of the movie business, and maybe more importantly, the chance to prove himself capable of doing anything of worth again is strong. And then there’s the figure of Carlotta (Cyd Charisse), the woman he tried to love and lost his mind over. She flits in and out of proceedings, simultaneously taunting Andrus with reminders of what he’s lost and holding out the promise of new adventures ahead. What it all boils down to is a two-week sojourn in a town where he may either drown in the heady atmosphere or, if he can see through the showbiz smokescreen, have the chance to regain the mastery of his soul once again.

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While I still think Two Weeks in Another Town is a very good film, it could potentially have been a great one. Charles Schnee wrote the script from a novel by Irwin Shaw, and the score was provided by the great David Raksin. With Milton Krasner shooting Minnelli’s beautiful nighttime setups just about all the ingredients were in place for a stone cold classic. But then, and ironically mirrored by the plot itself, came the interference from the studio. In his autobiography (The Ragman’s Son, Pan Books 1989,  pp 342-344), Douglas claims the movie was recut and edited when Joseph Vogel became the new head of MGM, stripping out some of the racier and more dramatically satisfying elements. I think that much can be seen in the somewhat sketchy development of a few of the characters. What we’re left with is the core of the story, of a man desperately seeking personal and spiritual redemption and the peace that comes with it. In addition, there’s the unmistakable stamp of Minnelli, the careful framing of whose shots create the kind of tableaux that approach visual poetry on occasion. It would be remiss of me not to mention his masterful use of color – the whole film is drenched in the deep, saturated hues which often characterize his work. Perhaps he falls short of achieving the dramatic and visual intensity of his sublime Some Came Running, but there are moments when he gets within striking distance at least.

Kirk Douglas was making his third appearance in a Minnelli production and he’s well cast in a role that calls for the type of mood swings which range from ebullience through manic intensity by way of brooding melancholy.  While the focal point of the story is on Andrus’ journey of self rediscovery, and the necessary laying to rest of old phantoms along the way, there’s room too for some interesting observations and musings on the nature of the actor, that wearer of masks. A wistful, early morning conversation with a besotted Daliah Lavi sees Douglas reflecting on the contradictory nature of the actor, the retreat from reality and submergence of the self in the character of others which actually runs counter to the overwhelming desire to better understand one’s own sense of being. Ultimately, it’s the reconciliation of these seemingly incompatible urges which lies at the heart of his character’s motivation.

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Robinson’s aging director is also notable, both in itself and as a commentary on the corrosiveness of the movie-making business. The essential insecurity of the man is demonstrated though the need to reaffirm himself through his notorious affairs with leading ladies  – which has had such an adverse effect on his relationship with his wife, an exceptionally acidic Claire Trevor – and also his desperation to prove once again his worth as an artist. It’s his fear of losing control, both personally and creatively, which drives him and finally twists his soul towards bitterness and distrust. The person who links (and divides) Douglas and Robinson is Carlotta as played by Cyd Charisse. Apparently a good deal of her part ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as she is very good based on what we do see of her. Whether it was intentional or not from the outset, she comes across as a blend of the enigmatic and the alluring, leaving a trail of emotional devastation in her wake while attempting to seduce her former lover back onto the same self-destructive path. The contrast comes in the form of Daliah Lavi’s Roman ingenue (demurely clad in simple and pure white throughout as opposed to the arch and lurid costumes of Charisse) whose understated charm and innocence helps restore Andrus’ perspective. I was less impressed by George Hamilton’s troubled young star, never feeling all that convinced by the struggle he’s supposed to be waging against his personal demons. In support, there are small parts (virtual cameos in truth) for George Macready and James Gregory.

Two Weeks in Another Town is available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also an Italian release available. I have that Italian disc and it presents the film in the correct anamorphic scope ratio. The transfer is good, clean one with no notable instances of damage. Colors are generally well reproduced, something very important in a film such as this, and the image is pleasing overall. The disc offers the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub, and there are no subtitle options of any kind. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer and some galleries. Frankly, I like this movie, but films about films always interest me anyway, and I feel it’s a great pity that parts of it were excised at the behest of the studio boss at the time. Nevertheless, the movie that we have available to view, in spite of its imperfections, is never less than fascinating for the peek behind the facade of filmmaking it affords us and also the central story of a man battling to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made in life. I recommend it.

Kirk Douglas reaches the grand age of 99 today and I thought I’d take the opportunity to post this piece on that occasion to draw attention not only to this great actor’s birthday but also to just one of the countless strong performances he’s delivered over a long career.