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Strangers When We Meet

by Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette was Staff Critic for The Film Journal from 2002 to 2005.  His writing has also appeared in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, Contracampo, and 24fps Magazine.

Richard Quine’s masterpiece Strangers When We Meet is the story of an adulterous relationship. Kirk Douglas is architect Larry Coe. Kim Novak is housewife Maggie Gault. The two are neighbors with children who attend school together. Early on, Quine films several scenes from Larry’s point-of-view, indicating the attraction he feels for Maggie. (This is particularly evident in the film’s very first scene, but it’s obvious also in a later scene where the two interact in a grocery store and, in a great tracking shot, the beautiful Maggie is revealed to the audience just as she is revealed to Larry.)

Later, Larry invites Maggie to come with him to survey a lot where he is about to build a house for a new client. Larry is standing next to his parked car as he speaks to Maggie opposite him. When Quine cuts to reverse shots of Maggie towards the end of the scene, it’s again obvious that we are seeing her as Larry perceives her; Novak is beautifully backlit in these shots. Maggie initially declines to join Larry, but eventually he is able to persuade her. “Change your mind,” he insists. In the shot in which he is seen saying that key line, Quine frames Larry with an intersection clearly visible behind him; despite the entire exchange taking place in the same location, this is the first time Quine has shot Larry in this way. Therefore, it is undeniably tempting to see the image of the road in metaphorical terms; depending upon Maggie’s answer, the two could be going down a path which will alter the courses of their lives greatly. Maggie agrees to go with Larry.

Another wonderful moment of visual metaphor comes when they meet at a seaside restaurant. It is storming outside and violent waves can be seen outside. Fittingly, Larry and Maggie acknowledge that they feel guilty about their adultery. And while neither one of them decides to end the relationship, the audience remains ill at ease with the morality of what they are doing. I believe this to be Quine’s intention. Think, for instance, of the moment when Maggie is thinking of Larry as she is doing the dishes. But her son yells, “Mom,” off-screen, asking for more milk. As Quine pulls back from a close-up of Maggie to a wide shot as she walks to the refrigerator, the audience is reminded palpably of her dual life.

Maggie’s deception of her husband is portrayed in hard-edged terms by Quine’s mise-en-scene. At one point, Maggie receives a call from Larry. She goes to answer it in the kitchen. The wide shot Quine selects for this moment includes both the kitchen to the right, the living room to the left in which Maggie’s husband can be seen sitting in an easy chair, and the wall which separates the two rooms—and, hence, Maggie from her husband. When the call is over, she says she was speaking to one of her girlfriends. (This shot, incidentally, brought to mind a similar one in Robert Mulligan’s Clara’s Heart, a film which also features an unhappy married couple; the shot in Mulligan’s film has long been championed by critic and Mulligan scholar Fred Camper. The two shots are so similar that it’s hard for me to imagine that Mulligan was unaware of Quine’s film.) The conclusion of Strangers When We Meet, set partly in the fully constructed house which Larry has been building over the course of the film, ends not on a note of romance, but with two long shots: one of Larry standing atop the hill on which his grand house has been built; the other of Maggie driving away from the house.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s recent DVD release of Strangers thankfully presents the film in its glorious 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio, though it lacks any supplemental material other than several theatrical trailers--despite the fact that both Douglas and Novak are still living. Novak said in a recent interview that she “was very much in love” with Quine; on the basis of the four extraordinary films they made together (among them the equally great Bell, Book, and Candle), it’s obvious that he felt the same way about her. One regrets that Novak wasn’t interviewed about her relationship with the director both on-and-off-screen. (Sadly, Quine died in 1989.) Nevertheless, Sony should be applauded for releasing this extraordinary picture—which, to the best of my knowledge, never even received a VHS release—on DVD.

 

Strangers When We Meet

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