Sometimes there’s a film where all the stars seem to align. Love with the Proper Stranger is not a message picture. Rather, the film is an example where subject matter, star persona, and historical significance combine to make an important movie. The drama holds a vital place in the cinema of the pre-second wave feminist era.
The film follows Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) and Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen). The two characters struggle with the consequences of a drunken one night stand. In fact, when Angie tells Rocky about her pregnancy, he has difficultly remembering who she is. Angie is a young department store sales girl, bursting under the pressure of her crowded, close-knit Italian upbringing. She feels stifled. She expresses frustration that her family doesn’t care what her brother Guido (Harvey Lembeck) does. However, they are fiercely protective of her. She says:
Don’t love me so much! I can’t breathe…Every day you meet me in the truck. 3 or 4 times a week you take me to lunch. You follow me around on dates, you pick out my boyfriends. Why don’t you protect Guido? Take him to lunch!
Angie’s mother (Penny Santon) says, “Guido’s a boy! Who cares what he does!”. This pressure contributes to Angie’s acting out. Rocky and Angie’s one night stand, as well as the resulting pregnancy, have already happened as the film opens.
The film, released on Christmas Day of 1963, comes at a period in popular culture when the subject of abortion was starting to become less taboo as a topic of conversation. Books like Revolutionary Road and television series like The Defenders were starting to show a more realistic portrayal of abortion, as well as the often life threatening danger women who underwent the procedure experienced st this time in history. Love with the Proper Stranger has a hard-hitting, but realistic account of abortion in the early 1960s. Angie is brought to a rundown apartment to have the procedure that’s far from medical. Instead of an exam room, it’s happening on a dirty mattress on the floor. Angie undresses slowly on screen, her anxiety growing. The scene is difficult to watch. Rocky eventually pulls her from the room before she can undergo the procedure.
Love with the Proper Stranger is an unconventional romance. When Angie recovers from the ordeal of the abortion, a protective, but reluctant Rocky wants to marry her. Angie says no:
Even though you don’t want to marry me, you’re willing to do it anyway… I know this may come as a shock to the both of you, but underneath all this hair and skin is a human girl with all the regular things going for me, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life married to a man who’s doing me a big favor! I made a mistake… but that doesn’t mean I have to ruin my whole life and his, and the baby’s!
Wood is dynamic in the sequence and take the active focus before terminating the conversation herself. Her brother and Rocky are speechless, unable to comprehend her agency in the face of everything going on in her life.
While surprisingly little is written about her lengthy (but still tragically cut-short) career, Natalie Wood is an actress whose film choice and star persona is deeply indicative of the era before the onset of second wave feminism. The actress started in Hollywood at the age of five and was a mainstay on movie screens for almost forty years. Had it not been for her premature death at the age of 43, Wood could have made films for decades more. The most interesting part of Wood’s career begins during her teen years and lasts through her early twenties. Coming in 1963, Love with the Proper Stranger falls squarely within this period. At this time, Natalie Wood was making some of her most interesting and adventurous film choices.
During this period, Wood made films like Marjorie Morningstar, Splendour in the Grass and West Side Story where Wood plays young women straining against the societal expectations of sexuality and love placed on her by the older generation. This is deeply representative of Wood as an actress. She is often quoted talking about her childhood in Hollywood, “I had worked as a child and I had always done as I was told… I was a rather dutiful child…”. This led to her expanding her roles and taking unconventional parts as she became an adult. Wood was learning to define herself against the expectations placed on her by society.
However, Love with the Proper Stranger struggles with its ending. As with a number of films examined in this series, the movie reverses course in the last few minutes. As the film ends, and Angie seemingly melts over Rocky’s “Better Wed than Dead” street performance, they kiss passionately. They seem to move towards a turbulent, but exciting relationship and the question of the pregnancy is noticeably absent. However, this drastic change in tone does not detract from the narrative of the film. Love with the Proper Stranger remains an important, vital film to post World War II Hollywood cinema.