Thursday, June 19, 2008
Strangers When We Meet (1960)
Sometimes what’s happening in the movie is not just what’s happening in the movie, but is reflective of wider influences, either intentionally or unintentionally. To certain respects that is what Another Old Movie Blog is about; movies are not made in a vacuum. Consider “Strangers When We Meet” (1960), which stars Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak, and Suburbia.
The plot, which involves adultery between the two stars who are married to other people, as well as the considerable screen presence of both these two actors, are strangely almost difficult to concentrate on when there are so many suburban artifacts to amuse and entertain. The big cars, just beginning their streamlined 1960s look in which they cruise from shopping plaza to home. The houses in the suburban subdivision, the stuff inside. It’s like looking at old family photos, like recalling from Kodachrome memory what you thought was forgotten.
Peg-legged Scandinavian-inspired furniture and decorative boxes on the coffee table that housewife Kim Novak fills with cigarettes. She bumps into Kirk Douglas at the grocery store, a circus of bright colors and food preservatives, a bazaar of angle parking and time saving meals for people on the go. No Diet Caffeine-Free Coke. No organic veggies or free-range chicken. No such thing as gluten allergies. Just modern pre-packaged foods with good nourishing things like salt and sugar, and plenty of cigarettes to have on hand for the guests. Grapefruit may be 19 cents a pound, but these two skip fresh veggies and fruit for the stuff in cans. It’s the modern way.
Douglas is a freelance architect who works at home. Driving his little son to the bus stop, he sees Kim Novak, the mother of another little boy, and takes an immediate interest. He is the pursuer and she the reluctant object of his interest. With a seemingly stable home life, a wife played by Barbara Rush, with whom he appears to have a good relationship, we are uncertain as to why he pursues Kim Novak so keenly. He does not seem a skirt chaser, and is absorbed more by his work than by anything else in his life. When he meets prospective client Ernie Kovacs at a restaurant to discuss plans for Ernie’s new house, Douglas is full of talk of design and is oblivious to the waitress, whom Kovacs ogles.
Kovacs, who is a novelist, and Douglas provide an interesting contrast between two men who are both self employed in creative endeavors. They have that in common, and there is an understanding between them because of it, the struggle to produce work that is meaningful and not merely commercial; the ever-present challenge to come up with something new. Do they still have what it takes? They soon have Kovacs’ new house in common as well, the big project Douglas hopes will prove a challenge for his abilities and an achievement for his reputation. It is as much Douglas’ house as it is Kovacs’, and there is even a subtle emotional battle between them as to whose house it really belongs to, the owner or the creator?
Kovacs, egotistical, emotionally brittle, and skirt chasing, is at a crossroads in his career. He fears failing, but also fears churning out the same material to play it safe. Douglas challenges him to take chances with his new book, to go out on a limb and write about what is most important to him, not to play it safe.
Douglas wishes to do the same with his work as an architect. This is perhaps the only bone of contention we see between Douglas and his wife. She runs the home with confidence and a sense of command. She appears to quash her husband’s artistic side for the more commercial aspects of his work, regretting his decision to go freelance, and badgering him to accept a safe and dull job with a firm he does not want.
When his relationship, at first only friendship, with Novak begins, Novak takes a keen interest in his work. She likes to discuss it. She has read articles about him. They discuss Kovacs’ last book, which they have both read. She does not insult Douglas’ artistic talent by demanding he forsake it. When he shows her the lot where he plans to build Kovacs’ new house, she takes one end of the measuring tape he hands her. We watch how far they can go.
Though Novak is the more reluctant of the two to begin an affair, we see that she is the more unhappy in her marriage. Her husband, dull and preoccupied, seems unresponsive and utterly lacking in passion for her. In one melancholy scene, an anxious Novak greets him half dressed, lights dim, their son sleeping over at a neighbor’s, trying to seduce her husband, pleading him to make love to her. His awkward brush-off is as baffling as it is heartbreaking. We are not given explanations as to his indifference, because we never really get to see his side of their marriage, but it would have been a different movie if this has been explored. We are shown their twin beds, and that’s all we get.
So desperate is Novak for a physical relationship that she confesses to Douglas a disturbing incident where she once allowed a man who made a pass at her to have sex with her, after she had taken enough sleeping pills to get her passively through the experience. If her emotionally damaged vulnerability is what also appeals to Douglas, then she displays plenty of that. But her lack of courage, her passivity, will also be the biggest hurdle in their relationship.
They fall in love, and for Novak it seems to begin when he calls her “Maggie,” which is what her father called her. To her husband she is Margaret, and to her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship, she is Margaret. Played by Virginia Bruce, mother once had an affair that hurt her marriage and destroyed her daughter’s affection for her. When her mother catches on to Novak’s affair with Douglas, there is a knowing look exchanged between them. We imagine that Novak has begun to understand that mother is a human being, just as we all must come to terms with our parents being human and messing up. This, too, unfortunately, is not explored in great depth.
Baby boomers will watch this film with the irresistible attachment of nostalgia. Many had dads who looked like Kirk Douglas in the movie, with the slacks and golf sweaters, the short haircut that never seemed to change. We never knew when 1960 dad went to the barber, because his hair was always the same. He wore a jacket and tie to a house party. 1960 dad did not dress like junior. He never put himself on the same level as junior. In many ways, he was a mystery to us.
Most dads did not work at home. If they were home, they were out of a job, or on vacation. When on vacation, they painted the house. Particularly in blue collar neighborhoods, vacation trips were rare. A day at the beach or the ballpark was a treat.
But even in the working class neighborhoods, the houses were not too different from one in the neighborhood of Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. Even if working class 1960 dad and mom could not afford the same furniture and artwork that the professional classes did, they bought cheaper copies, so it looked the same. They might have furnished the whole house from the S&H Green Stamp catalogue, but it looked like the same imitation wood grain Formica coffee table. When something big was purchased, like the first color TV or the hi-fi with the automatic record changer that played Nat King Cole and Andy Williams, the neighbors were brought in to see it.
Walter Mathau, who plays another neighbor in this intriguing suburban world, makes a comment that wives view their husbands as part of the furniture. One could say that the Baby Boomer kids viewed both their parents in that way. You went home from school, there was mom, and the TV. Dad was in the basement sharpening the lawnmower blades. They were part of the house, like the appliances.
The house was the whole world. The kids might rove in great wolf packs on the street on their Schwinn bikes, but the house was the center of the universe. Dad and Mom evidently felt the same way. A $10,000 mortgage was not taken lightly; it required all their commitment, to paying the thing down, and to each other. In a sense, their lifestyle was geared not just to living in the house, but living up to it.
Even if they managed on one paycheck, they might have still had two cars. Without the car there would be no suburbia, it was like the chicken and the egg. Everywhere you wanted to go was someplace else. You stopped walking downtown. You drove there. Then you drove past there and didn’t stop anymore. There was a whole new world of shopping plazas out on the highway that in many communities was called The Magic Mile. You needed a car. It was your passport to life. They created the world we live in today, where we need a car.
Kirk Douglas drives his two-tone big ol’ convertible with the fins to the site of Ernie Kovacs’ new house. We see the house going up, bit by bit. He drives to a seaside motel for trysts with Kim Novak. They drive and drive and drive, because gas is cheap and plentiful as water.
At one point they lie on the beach, and as she tenderly strokes his naked back, she asks him about his experience during the war, confirming that her husband had also spent time in the service. It was something 1960 dads had in common; they were almost all, except very young dads, veterans of World War II or the Korean Conflict or both, though they didn’t like to talk about it. Some moms, too. This was another reason why they were so adaptable, so eager for modern things. We may look back upon them as old fashioned, but they were the most forward-looking generation of all. When they looked back, all they saw were the childhoods spent in want during the Great Depression, and the friends they knew that had been killed in the war. They wanted to move on, right now, away from all that. They got there fast. They took the car.
If 1960 Dad was a mystery, then 1960 Mom was taken for granted. Her opportunities for a career were limited. She may have pondered this; we didn’t. She must have done more than shine up her flour and sugar canisters on the kitchen counter, but we never knew. She was always busy. When the new department store opened up out on the Magic Mile, she and dad went there in the car, dressed as if they were going out to a nice restaurant. She wore stockings. He shaved, again. It was a big deal. Mom never left the house without her white gloves.
She lived in a confining world, even if that world of her suburban house was partly of her own making. For her, the confinement started from the skin out. It was a prison of girdles and garters and chastity belts.
We don’t really know what Douglas’ wife does with her time, if he’s the one bringing their boy to the bus stop and doing the marketing. She puts the groceries away, (we have several scenes of her and of Novak in their separate kitchens) and he hoists his rear end up on the kitchen counter, which is a nice touch. It’s a suburban thing to do, sit on the kitchen counter. She looks busy, impatient, as if she has somewhere else she must be, but we are never told what else is happening in her life. She seems only an appendage of her husband.
She plans a house party, and the neighbors all show up, ladies in dresses, men in coats and ties. Douglas floods the charcoal briquettes on the patio barbecue with about half a can of lighter fluid. No state of the art gas grills, here. Not a propane canister in sight. Just dump enough flammable liquid on warm coals and admire the chest-high flames.
Kim Novak and her husband arrive at the party, too. If it is a tense moment for Kirk, who flies about the place trying to be busy, trying to outrun his guilt with another martini, it is a deeply sad revelation for her. She sees the home he has made with his wife. She chats with his little boy. When she retrieves her coat from their bedroom, she sees that their twin beds are pushed together.
The guests discuss crabgrass and parenting. Her boring self-satisfied husband discusses with the other guests how hard it is to be a good father. Asked if he thinks he is a good husband, he remarks, “I think I’m a good husband. I haven’t heard any kicks yet.”
Kim Novak is not one to complain. She is too passive. Her one attempt to confront his coldness to her failed. Later, when Douglas tells her they can’t continue as they are, she resists either breaking off or asking her husband for a divorce. She cannot make herself do anything but keep things as they are.
Douglas shows her his home office and tells her, “This is where I miss you most,” still equating his passion for her with his passion for his work, which only she understands.
The real catalyst at the party is Walter Matthau, in what must have been a fun role. Early in the film he appears to be a rather solid, pontificating, dull as dishwater suburban husband and father. He complains about another man’s off-color jokes. He is, by his own admission, old-fashioned.
Not entirely. He follows Kirk Douglas around as the party winds down, insinuating he knows Douglas is having an affair. We learn that Matthau lives a double life, and has affairs with other women. Pleased that Douglas has joined the club of unfaithful husbands, he gleefully needles him. Matthau tells him his wife already suspects, and Douglas is paralyzed by that thought.
Matthau has his own motives. When he discovers Douglas’ wife alone, Matthau boldly enters their home, interrupts her when she is about to take a shower, and attempts to seduce her. Her reaction to Matthau forcing himself on her is one of panic and hysteria, leaving Matthau more soundly rebuffed than if she had hit him with a waffle iron bought with S&H Green Stamps. His expression of humiliation is very subtle acting, and terrific. But his embarrassment does not last long. When confronted by Douglas, Matthau sneers accusingly, “How am I any different from you?”
It hits home to Douglas, and he is sickened. And though at first his angry wife confronts him about his affair, tells him to get out of her life, with Miss Rush getting some great dialogue here, she later recants and begs him to stay.
Kirk Douglas’ inner conflict isn’t solved, but he ends his wife’s pain by accepting a new job in Hawaii where he is to draft plans for an entire new city. Thousands of acres of pristine native bush will be paved over for progress, and Douglas’ eyes light up at the thought of it. His wife and kids will go with him on this five-year mission. They will escape suburbia to create a new one.
But 1960 Dad and Mom likely just grew older in their three-bedroom ranch. How much alarm they felt as years passed when they noticed their daughter’s skirts getting shorter and their son’s hair getting longer we need not imagine, because we remember. We were getting older, too, and about that time they stopped being fixtures in the house and became people instead, people with whom we sometimes argued. The political and social turmoil of later decades hit them pretty hard sometimes, but mostly they weathered it. Their house was their haven from the increasingly baffling outside world. With faith and hope, they exchanged the avocado kitchen appliances for “Harvest Gold.”
Today the neighborhood has changed a bit. The houses don’t look exactly identical anymore. It’s now a land of vinyl siding covering the old cedar shakes, and replacement windows. Additions were put on over the years, sunrooms, two-car garages. The people living in these more individual-looking houses are probably more diverse, too. A lot more of them, like Kirk Douglas, are working at home now.
Then one day there’s a “for sale” sign on 1960 Dad and Mom’s house. A 50-year tenancy is over. We see their stuff at the yard sale, all over the front lawn. Remember those electric carving knives? And the vinyl LPs of cocktail music. An archeological dig couldn’t come up with more telling artifacts.
Kirk Douglas meets Kim Novak at the building site of Ernie Kovacs’ house, really their pretend house, one last time to say goodbye. The house is finished. They walk through it. It is empty, Kovacs hasn’t moved in yet, so there is no furniture, no stuff. Just the house itself with all its promise.
The builder walks in to check a few things, and he thinks Miss Novak is Mr. Douglas’ wife. They do not bother to correct him. How odd, when they have expended such effort to escape their suburban prisons, they spend their last few moments together “playing house.”