If you live in a city, chances are you spend much of your time presenting yourself to strangers. You typically encounter a different cashier every time you buy groceries, or run into mostly new customers each shift you work behind a counter. You might be a temporary or contract office worker, in which case you don’t generally stay at one assignment long enough to feel comfortable loosening your tie. In any case, you say “Hello” and “Have a nice day,” to people you’ve never seen before. For many of us, maybe most, this is a significant part of our lives.
Well, here’s an alarming idea for you. What if it turned out that we city-dwellers spend so much time pretending we’re someone we’re not that we’re no longer quite sure who we are? A preoccupation of psychologists since Erich Fromm, this incredibly depressing notion is played for laughs in Neil Simon’s 1970 homage to flyover country The Out-of-Towners, a classic screwball comedy now on DVD in which the mean streets of New York City chew up and spit out backward Ohioans George and Gwen Kellerman (Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis).
Almost immediately The Out-of-Towners presents the cinematic cliché of the big, anonymous city as — Pauline Kael describes it this way in an article written the same year — “meant to show the depths of depersonalization to which we are sinking.” In the movie, of course, it’s a little funnier. As their jet approaches Kennedy airport, Gwen and George eagerly plan their meal at the Four Seasons — but traffic’s backed up and the plane circles and circles, it seems interminably. It happens all the time, a salty air traveler tells our principals. “I figure just circling,” he says cheerfully, “I’m two years older.”
It’s the first intimation that city life isn’t necessarily going to be what the Kellermans had been led to expect. Their flight is diverted to Boston and a mad rush to the baggage carousel follows — again with the loop-de-loops. In the movie’s niftiest shot, the camera slides down the chute to the carousel and begins its circuit around the track, panning to follow a nonplussed and anxious Gwen, nearly lost in the groping throng. Alas, we’re not her bag; the Kellermans’ baggage has in fact been completely lost, which leads to a round-and-round of a different kind courtesy of an airline representative (Billy Dee Williams, eleven years pre-Lando) who can tell the Kellermans everything except where their personal effects are.
These are only two in a parade of misfortunes to befall the Kellermans in this early entry in the trip-gone-wrong genre; the baton was later passed to National Lampoon’s Vacation; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; The Sure Thing. All these tell of displacement and mislocation as good guys far from home are mugged, abandoned, turned away, robbed of all dignity, taken far from safety, dragged kicking and screaming from civilization into desperate want. One of the originals, Out-of-Towners is also one of the best. Few of its imitators can fathom its descent into barbarism (and this, after all, is the contest of the trip-gone-screwy movie; to drive its heroes furthest into ruin). When an hour or so later Gwen and George hobble pitifully after a dog who has taken their mostly empty box of roadkill Cracker Jacks, it feels a little like the howling, lycanthropic depths of Lord of the Flies — only you’re laughing your ass off.
Throughout, it falls to Gwen to provide reasonable advice for George to ignore, as the latter forges ahead into new frontiers of disaster. As the voice of reason, Gwen doesn’t carry herself with much authority. In fact, she looks outright bizarre, having lost one eyelash and gotten the other on the wrong eye. But if she is never listened to, still she gets it right every time — from the hotel room courtesy of the airline to a temporary shelter at the Armory, Gwen is full of suggestions that would at least get the Kellermans rested and where they needed to be the following morning.
Her sensibleness is linked to her penchant for taking the broad perspective. As when the Kellermans encounter a massive pile of street garbage, the result of a street strike, and she ponders the quandaries of public administration: “Who’s gonna clean that up?” Later she wonders aloud whether the world’s children are getting enough milk. For the first time, she finds herself wondering whether things are working, in a global sense.
A little later, the couple is mugged and afterward Gwen sits dejectedly on a different trash-heap, semi-eyelashless, hands held limp in front of her. “I need a cup of coffee or a drink,” she murmurs, and peers crazily this way and that. Already, just halfway into the movie, she seems destitute — marooned partly by her own misfortune but mostly by her newfound awareness of how hard a place the city can be.
Being more stubborn than Gwen, George takes a bit longer to break. He promises to bring the matter up with FAA when the flight attendants refuse to serve coffee during landing, and threatens to sue virtually everyone with whom the Kellermans come in contact. George believes that infallible courts offer redress for just grievances, and that there’s always someone whose job it is to square accounts with a betrayed customer.
His fist-wagging fury yields little but gives Jack Lemmon plenty of chances to work his trademark gag: a kind of syntactic pratfall, the sentence that trails off into garble. “I want [my bags] right here, where I am,” he stammers, while leveling simultaneous legal challenges to a hotel desk clerk and an airline attendant, “not where I was before you didn’t get me there!” It’s the first sign that George might be cracking up, and it comes pretty early on. He spends most of the movie in this dull rage, gathering names for a coming fusillade of legal actions, and wondering whether things are really as equitable as he’d always believed them to be.
Gwen and George’s parallel breakdowns turn medieval when, subsequent to their abduction by armed car thieves, they find themselves adrift in Central Park in the middle of the night. Now things get really, really awful. If the Kellermans have lost all their possessions, in Central Park they lose even the basic elements of life and saneness. Dignity? Fuggitaboutit: They don’t even merit a dog’s leftovers. Abstract time? Long gone: another sinister stranger takes George’s watch and the next morning, to bewail his lateness, he’s reduced to pointing at the sun caveman-style and sobbing, “Look at the time!”
Coherent sense of self is the last to give. Gwen accuses a muttering George of talking about her “in the third person” and he retorts, “I’m not talking to you in the third person, I’m talking to myself in the second person.” There’s those garbled sentences again. Or after they’ve stumbled out of the park and are turned away from a church because a tv studio is shooting a service there. Robbed of this final refuge the couple wanders down the street as Gwen lists the things she and George can no longer do: “We can’t ride, we can’t walk, we can’t eat, we can’t pray.” George, holding out hope, tells her, “As long as we got our brains, we can think.”
“Oh, they’ll get that too, George, you’ll see,” fumes Gwen, her pessimism running over into paranoia. At last the city’s greatest danger is exposed, the flaw that, more than the others, sends the Kellermans back to Ohio to live out the rest of their simple lives. Sandy Dennis as Gwen closes out the movie (basically) with a gorgeous, whispery paean to the country that enumerates the shortcomings of the city — that place where “people have to live on top of each other, and they don’t have enough room to walk or to breathe or to smile at each other.” The real peril, though — the one preceding all the others — is that if you let it, the city can steal your thoughts.