Strangers When We Meet is a melodramatic tale of extramarital unhappiness amongst fast-track suburbanites. Spirited architect Larry (Kirk Douglas) Larry has been hired by novelist Roger Alter (played by the late television comic Ernie Kovacs in a rare dramatic role) to build him a house befitting his self-image as a convention-breaking malcontent. In the process, Larry chances upon Maggie (Kim Novak), whom he knows vaguely because their young sons attend the same school, and invites her to join him at the worksite.
We are aware at this point that Maggie has cheated on her husband before, that her husband is an affable but not demonstrable individual, and that Larry’s wife, Eve (Barbara Rush), vigorously encourages him to put the material needs of her and their two children ahead of any off-the-wall experimentation in his profession. And so the clandestine relationship blossoms, with potentially soapy aspects mitigated as Larry is not so much fleeing an unappreciated spouse as dipping in fresh waters, anxious about the stigma attached to spurning the allure of success.
The sympathetic treatment of the lead characters is enhanced by director Richard Quine’s judicious use of the widescreen frame, setting most shots at a comfortable distance from the characters and cutting to close-ups only at key moments in the plot. Such remove creates the impression that Larry and Maggie are only barely comfortable in their environment, forever tempted by dissatisfaction. It also reinforces a mood of melancholy, a rueful conviction that fine belongings and lavish residences cannot compensate for emotional malnourishment.
Such attention to detail is typical of Quine’s best work. A child actor in the 1930s and ‘40s, he turned to the other side of the camera in the late ‘40s, and hit his stride as a contract director with Columbia throughout the next decade, moving ably from film noir (Pushover ), to musicals (My Sister Eileen ), to comedy (Operation Mad Ball ). During the 1960s, his budgets rose, but his reputation diminished as his movies’ antic edge gave way to mainstream melodrama. Cast adrift, like many of his peers, by the erosion of the studio system, Quine worked only intermittently in the ‘70s, his last credit being a debacle from the tail-spinning final period of Peter Sellers’ career, a send-up of the swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda (1979) that sank like a lead balloon. Ten years later, having suffered from fits of depression, Quine committed suicide, made all the more upsetting by the contrast with the glow and glamour of his best films.
Among these are the two he made with Novak (best known as the object of Jimmy Stewart’s obsession in Vertigo ). He marshals with equal skill her shy, sometimes deadpan, yet nonetheless steamy persona (Raymond Durgnat memorably describes her, in Films and Feelings , as “a flower wrapped in the cellophane of her own provocation”). Quine’s Bell, Book, and Candle (1959) paired Novak again with Stewart as a modern day witch who enchants her co-star’s worldly wise book publisher. Elegantly shot and impeccably timed, it holds up as not only one of the best fantasy-tinged comedies but also more than likely an influence on the television series Bewitched.
Strangers When We Meet, at long last released on a bare-bones DVD by Columbia, offers another example of their partnership. Quine’s direction makes good use of Novak’s hesitancy and reserve, and also keeps Douglas’s customary over-the-top persona on a low simmer. Maggie and Larry’s affair takes a detour when he receives an offer to move to Hawaii and take over the design and construction of a new city in the midst of the lush island’s interior. The conundrum for the architect becomes whether he wishes to sacrifice emotion for ambition, to cast aside his artistic aspirations for a forlorn and furtive relationship in a community prone to gossip.
From the grim trajectory of Quine’s career, one might imagine he not only sympathized with his protagonist’s plight, but also perceived this challenging narrative, adapted by Evan Hunter from his own novel, as his own shot at a kind of respectability in his chosen profession. Strangers When We Meet never allows the glossiness of its presentation to erode a very affecting and astute appraisal of the state of suburbia before its inhabitants were swept away by the volatile energies of the decade to come.