The title Love with the Proper Stranger had long been lodged in my Boomer brain, yet I couldn’t remember actually seeing the movie during my youth, despite its five Oscar nods. I discovered the 1963 Natalie Wood–Steve McQueen film recently, and now can’t get it out of my mind. Is it a melodramatic, rom-com-like cautionary tale? Yes, yes, yes!
It opens with naïve shop girl Angie (Natalie) tracking down rakish jazz guy Rocky (Steve) and telling him—her one and only one-night-stand—that she’s pregnant. All she wants from Rocky (who can’t remember meeting, much less bedding her) is help to “take care of it.” The not-quite strangers then embark on a quirky traipse through their native NYC. While they talk a little, it’s what they don’t say that will slay you. Director Robert Mulligan has them simply look at each other, look away, look back — and their chemistry is combustible.
Finally, they take the long walk up the scary stairs for the back-alley abortion. It’s another almost silent scene, shot a decade before Roe vs. Wade (but feeling very relevant right now) and it made my heart sink somewhere around my spleen. Then came its climax, which had me leaping off the couch. In a good way.
I would’ve faded to black right there. Instead, there’s some silly slapstick and a cornball ending as the young couple figures out what they truly feel for each other. Still, I’d catch Love with the Proper Stranger (newly mastered in HD, available from Kino Lorber) over 50 Shades of anything this Valentine’s Day.
– Nina Malkin