Directed by Robert Mulligan, a year after To Kill A Mockingbird, Love With A Proper Stranger earned Natalie Wood her third Oscar nomination and gave Steve McQueen the kind of dramatic role he hoped would help studios see he could do more than action and war films.
When Angie (Natalie Wood) learns she’s pregnant after a one-night stand, her only aim in approaching the baby’s father is his help finding a doctor for an illegal abortion. Rocky (Steve McQueen), for his part, ensures the conversation goes maximumly horribly by not recognizing her. Since he later shows up at her work, with a doctor’s name, he must remember something, but you can see why Angie doesn’t have further sights on the guy.
For a good two-thirds of the movie she stays strong on that point, and it’s one of the reasons Love With A Proper Stranger stands out. There’s never been a time where society’s fully supported out of wedlock pregnancies, but the 60’s weren’t sympathetic, and in order to save face and minimize scandal, marriage was considered the answer.
Even before they found out Angie was expecting, marriage was all her traditional, Italian family could think about. Depicted as your usual loud and overprotective brood, one scene that sets them apart is when Angie’s putting on a bath and all her brothers and mother end up traipsing through the bathroom. Dragging the guest they want her to meet inside (a pre-Happy Days Tom Bosley), they don’t bother knocking and you can see why Angie wants to move out.
That desire isn’t so great, though, that she’s going to marry Rocky, a man who she has no illusions about being ready for commitment. It’s Rocky who decides to go with her to the doctor’s appointment. She didn’t expect him to come, but the other fascinating thing about Love With A Proper Stranger is that it never tries to fill the silences. Standing a good distance apart from one other—Rocky’s coat buttoned to the top—they don’t rehash the past.
The New York locations (I never knew Macy’s had a pet department) are universally wonderful but the spot where Angie and Rocky wait for the doctor to show up is especially ominous. In their DVD commentary, critics, Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, let us know this was a meat packing district, and while you could read into the subtext if you wanted, Love With A Proper Stranger isn’t taking a side but focusing on the medical dangers of backstreet abortions.
Ellinger and Deighan also talk about the Hays Code and one possible reason Angie and Rocky don’t discuss the night they met is because of the improper circumstances. There’s no pining in this movie, or bringing up regrets. The sliver of information we’re given, that they were in the mountains, is the biggest disclosure.
The abrupt ending doesn’t do the film justice. It’s not that the story couldn’t have ended the way it does, but the couple’s underlying issues haven’t evolved enough for such a leap of faith. A favorite anecdote from the commentary is an account of what it was like to work with Wood and McQueen according to Alice Palmer, who played one of the Macy’s clerks. The cop out ending aside, Love With A Proper Stranger is worth seeking out for never thinking Angie should settle for backhanded compliments.
Love With A Proper Stranger is available now from Kino Lorber.