...A Touch of French New Wave "Love with the Proper Stranger"
Hollywood filmmakers Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula were wise to make 1963 dramedy “Love with the Proper Stranger.” Capitalizing on the success of French director Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” film of 1960, which ignited a proverbial firestorm, making French New Wave an exciting new film genre – it’s no surprise that this powerhouse Hollywood duo took notice, and wanted in. After all, French New Wave was the epitome of “cool.”
French New Wave was all about on-location shoots, hand-held cameras, curious angles, and jump cuts. Visually, it had a documentary, yet sophisticated feel. Call it "docu-chic." French New Wave also often incorporated lengthy scenes not bound by dialogue, rather a mood. HMMM. “What is this character saying in their face? Let’s read between those lines.” After all, so much of human communication is non-verbal, right? Audiences were captivated. And as for plot? Like their visuals, French New Wave plots were realistic but suave. How wonderfully, unpredictably “modern.”
Cue “Love with the Proper Stranger.” It’s a gem of a flick. Starring Natalie Wood as sheltered Italian-American salesclerk Angie Rossini and Steve McQueen as freewheeling Italian-American musician Rocky Papasano, this film is, at its bare bones, an “abortion” story. GULP. For 1963 American audiences, talk about a shot of “risky realism.”
These two “strangers” have a one-night stand which results in an accidental pregnancy. YIKES. “What now?” Shot in black and white on the streets of New York City, this movie takes the tough, pressurized topic of abortion and, just like in those mysterious underground diamond mines, turns out a dazzling diamond. “Wait, how’d they do that?”
Pakula is good as a director, and so are Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen as actors. There’s a welcome unevenness to “Love with the Proper Stranger” that’s truly all French New Wave-y. The audience never knows how it’s going to end. "What's going to happen to these two troubled souls?" Comedy or tragedy? No typical rom-com here.
Angie professes she doesn’t want anything from Rocky – just the name of a doctor. He obliges, and even helps with money for the procedure. But when their abortion plan hits a snag, in one of the most disturbing and riveting scenes ever caught on film, particularly because it’s so “real” and a sign of 1960s times – viewers truly become concerned for this “anti-couple’s” fate. They’ve entered some dark territory.
Still, fast-forward to the dinner scene at the film's finale. Angie is cooking dinner for Rocky in her sweet new mini “matchbox” apartment, and he brings her flowers, and she pours him a drink. Rocky cutely corrects Angie's innocence in drink-making, using her nickname. “Zelda... scotch and tonic? Noooo.” Viewers giggle, possibly finding it difficult to imagine they’re watching the same abortion-heavy movie as before. Sidebar – the romantic chemistry between Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen in this dinner scene is AMAZING. How hot and steamy!
“Love with the Proper Stranger” appears to have been a calculated risk that paid off for everyone involved. The film garnered five Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Natalie Wood. Importantly, it brought a tasty slice of 1960s French cinema to a hungry American audience. “Crème brulee, anyone?” MMMM. Like a great dessert, this movie is delicious.