April 16, 2008

Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)
Grade: 48/100

Director: Robert Mulligan
Stars: Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Herschel Bernardi

What it's about. Steve McQueen is a part-time musician who enjoys his freedom, even at the cost of near-poverty. Remarkably, he doesn't remember his previous encounter with the high-strung but ravishing Natalie Wood, but she does, especially since she's pregnant.

Wood hopes McQueen will help pay for her then-illegal abortion. She needs to keep it hush-hush, lest her meddlesome family, especially older brother Herschel Bernardi, find out. We suspect things will work out between McQueen and Wood, but first complications must be resolved. These include the would-be abortion, Wood's mother-dominated paramour Tom Bosley, and McQueen's dog-loving girlfriend, Edie Adams.

How others will see it. Few will believe that McQueen has no memory of gorgeous Natalie Wood. Equally incredible, he wants to marry her because it's the right thing to do, instead of because she's the hottest brunette in New York City.

The ending doesn't seem right, either. Wood and McQueen have a row, then McQueen makes a fool of himself, and this (presumably) leads to a march on the courthouse to be married. And they lived happily ever after, as long as she keeps her job at Macy's even while nine months pregnant, since they'll never get by on McQueen's infrequent banjo gigs.

Classic film lovers will probably not care much. They will be eager to see McQueen and Wood in their youthful glory, will notice the competent Tom Bosley, and will appreciate the cinematography of New York City, circa 1963. They probably won't even wonder why Bernardi takes such an intense, smothering interest in his grown hottie sister.

Natalie Wood has enough close-ups to encourage male viewing, and the romance angle is sufficiently strong for female fans of the genre. This leaves out only those who put black and white movies in the same category as Atari game cartridges: obsolete and inferior. Well, it's their loss.

How I felt about it. The Academy Awards gives out innumerable Oscars. One they have never given out is for The Actress Most in Need of Valium. The 1964 winner would undoubtedly be Natalie Wood. She is so stressed-out that it is difficult to tell what is the leading contributor: her pregnancy, her buttinsky brother, the clumsy mamma's boy her family is setting her up with, or Steve McQueen, who always manages to say the wrong thing at the right time.

Most would say, it's the pregnancy. This puts a time limit on Wood's options. But McQueen is probably her biggest aggravation. He seems so promising as a husband, and after all, he is the father. But he's such a jerk, despite his best intentions, and he has no money. His career and his life is going nowhere. But from this set-up, a happy ending is incongruously pasted on. Go figure.