It’s not unusual for pre-production publicity on a new film to revolve around the star or the director but it’s particularly rare when it focuses on a construction site. In the case of the glossy 1960 soap opera, Strangers When We Meet, directed by Richard Quine, the real star of the movie was the cliff top Bel Air home that was constructed especially for the film by architect Carl Anderson and art director Ross Bellah.
Central to the film’s storyline, the house with the ocean view is the vision of architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas); he is building it for successful novelist Roger Altar (Ernie Kovacs), who wants something different and unique. In the course of construction, Coe, who is bored with his marriage to Eve (Barbara Rush), meets and ardently pursues Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), a sexy, blonde housewife he first encounters at his son’s elementary school when they are dropping off their children. Coe’s advances are rebuffed by Maggie until she finally gives in, unable to bear any longer the strain and frustrations of a loveless marriage.
As Altar’s architectural wonder takes shape so do new conflicts: Larry and Maggie are torn between abandoning their marriages and families and running away together; Altar experiences mid-career panic and has second thoughts about his brilliant architect; Larry’s neighbor, Felix (Walter Matthau), detects Larry’s affair and attempts to seduce Eve when she is alone at home. Practically every relationship in Strangers When We Meet is a lost cause, but the one thing to emerge unscathed at the end is Coe’s ultra-modern dream home, perched high up in the Santa Monica mountains and glistening in the sun.
When news of the Bel Air home’s construction was first covered by the press, Columbia studio publicists revealed that it was being built in stages for the movie Strangers When We Meet and that it would be sold after the film was completed. The more persistent rumor, however, was that the house was the future love nest for Kim Novak and her director Richard Quine, who had tried to keep their affair private for years. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons had often intimated that Novak and Quine were an item but New York Times reporter Joe Hyams out-scooped her when he dropped in unexpectedly on the set of Strangers When We Meet and asked Novak point blank, “Your honeymoon home?” Novak replied, “Stop reading the papers, Mr. Hyams. Stop listening to gossip. Richard Quine and I are having a romance; it’s as simple as that. Marriage is another matter entirely…I’m not sure I want to get married and I’m not sure it would work out for Dick and me. We have always been bothered by the undercurrent of work running through our long relationship. You know how hard that makes it, very hard.” (from Kim Novak: Reluctant Goddess by Peter Harry Brown).
There had always been speculation about the love life of the notoriously press-shy Novak with rumors of past affairs with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ram Trujillo. The romance with Quine, however, was now public knowledge but on the set it had different ramifications. In her earlier years in Hollywood Novak had been a reclusive, passive presence on movie sets such as Pal Joey (1957) but now she had gained more self-confidence and was flexing her power as one of Columbia’s biggest stars. According to Brown’s biography, “Her experience on Middle of the Night  convinced her that she was an actress to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, she picked the wrong director (Quine) and the wrong star (Kirk Douglas) upon whom to vent her spleen. Technicians laughed behind their hands one afternoon when Kim seriously tried to give acting instructions to Douglas, who listened with a deadpan face. Off camera, he referred to her as the ‘broad Harry Cohn built.’ Within days, relations between the two stars became frosty and threatened to divide the company into armed camps. Kirk, usually a model of patience, began complaining about the time it took to photograph Novak from just the right angle, in just the proper light, and during just the right mood. The inference was that Quine was tilting the production heavily in favor of Kim.”
In his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas recalled some of the difficulties in making Strangers When We Meet: “One morning, we were shooting a scene down at the beach. Obviously, Kim and Dick had been discussing the scene, and she was excited about a wonderful idea she had come up with. Apparently, Dick had agreed with her wholeheartedly. I listened to her argument, told her exactly why it was impossible to do the scene that way. She looked at Dick. He looked at me and said, ‘You know, Kim, he’s right.’ Kim went berserk. She ripped up the pages, started to make incoherent sounds, screamed, went nuts. It was impossible to shoot with her for the rest of the day. The next day we shot the scene the way it was written. We got through the picture, and I enjoyed working with her, although I do think that she convinced Richard to give the picture the wrong ending. The original ending in the book, very powerful, was that after our love affair had ended, Walter Matthau, who was playing a heavy, comes to pick her up in a car, and she decides what the hell, and goes off with him. Life goes on. Instead, she preferred to spurn him, pull her trench coat up around her neck, and walk off like Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t think that was the right ending, but those are the hazards of working with someone who’s romantically involved with the director.”
Douglas’s recollection of the original ending isn’t entirely accurate because HIS character is the one that calls off the affair and tries to make a go of it with his wife and family in Hawaii where an ambitious five-year project awaits him. The ending from Evan Hunter’s novel (he also wrote the screenplay) wouldn’t make much sense either since the Walter Matthau character was an obnoxious lech and completely inconceivable as the sort of man Maggie would gravitate toward to fulfill her emotional and sexual needs. The present ending of Strangers When We Meet actually rings true since none of the characters are able to escape their own private hells. Perhaps Novak was right to sway Quine’s opinion on the film’s conclusion. Novak “would always refer to Strangers When We Meet as ‘that great lost weekend.’ (Several years later Kim reaped revenge on her former male lead in Boys’ Night Out  by having James Garner chastise a smiling friend with the lines: ‘Stop showing off your teeth. Who do you think you are? Kirk Douglas?’).”
Strangers When We Meet was one of the last films Novak made for her home studio Columbia – her final film for them, The Notorious Landlady (1962), was released the following year – and it also heralded the end of her reign as a major star. She never again experienced the earlier career heights of such films as Picnic (1955) or Vertigo (1958). Douglas, of course, was still in the prime of his career and followed Strangers When We Meet with the Oscar®-winning epic, Spartacus (1960), in which he served as executive producer and star. Strangers When We Meet might not have been a happy experience for either actor and it certainly wasn’t well received by critics of its era or the public. It didn’t receive any Oscar® nominations either but, regardless of this, the film yields numerous pleasures that were overlooked at the time.
Hipster comedian and innovative television host Ernie Kovacs provides a welcome diversion from the heavy soap opera proceedings as the popular writer who demands the appropriate house for his oversized ego. His character, a borderline lush and habitual womanizer, is a completely improbable character and seems to belong in a different movie but he is still an amusing and charismatic presence in the film. It’s a shame he didn’t get the opportunity to explore the film medium as he did television; a fatal car wreck in 1962 ended a promising career.
The other great scene-stealer in Strangers When We Meet is Walter Matthau as the loathsome Felix who enjoys baiting Coe with unwanted advice about his not-so-private affair with Maggie. He’s rarely been sleazier than the scene in which he corners Eve in her home alone during a rainstorm – “Come on, Eve, I know you want to…” – and the film’s final shot of Felix shows him sharing his “wisdom” with his young son as they walk to school, observing numerous housewives along the way, “Love’em all, Brucie, love’em all!”
The film’s view of life in suburbia is also fascinating for its candor in addressing marital problems and couples who have resigned themselves to a dull existence together because they don’t have the guts or honesty to live the lives they really want. Other films from the same era such as No Down Payment (1957) also explored marital discontent in the suburbs but Strangers When We Meet stands out for its sad truths delivered within a glossy, artificial milieu.
It’s no wonder the film fared poorly with moviegoers who expected a romantic fantasy and got a dose of Jean-Paul Sartre, American-style. The film could almost pass as a Douglas Sirk melodrama on the order of All That Heaven Allows (1955) or There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) and the dialogue is just as self-conscious and ironic. In one scene, Kirk Douglas’s character admits, “I’m such a phony. I’ve got a drawer full of manufactured labels. Architect, husband, father, man. I sew them into my clothes. The suits never fit.”
The most impressive aspects of the film, however, are Ross Bellah’s stylized art direction, the beautifully framed widescreen Technicolor cinematography of Charles Lang (he received over 18 Oscar® nominations in his career) which could be printed as stills and sold in art galleries, and the Bel Air dream house, which we are privileged to see from the laying of the foundation through its construction to its final completion as an architectural marvel…..or monstrosity, depending on your personal aesthetic.
Strangers When We Meet was previously released on DVD by Columbia in a widescreen print in 2005 and may still be available from some vendors. There is no information yet on its availability on Blu-Ray but it would make an ideal choice for that format.
* This is a revised and updated version of the original article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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