Love with the Proper Stranger is a film that doesn’t receive enough recognition.
Released in 1963, it stars Natalie Wood as Angie Rossini, a Macy’s salesgirl, and Steve McQueen as Rocky Papasano, a part-time musician. Directed by Paul Mulligan of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, it’s a film that has an uncanny prescience in today’s world that I feel needs more of a deep dive.
We begin in media res—Rocky is searching for another gig, even going so far as to ask his crony to make a call to amplify his résumé. He does get a call, but not for the reason he thinks. Instead, Angie approaches him. Her brown eyes gaze deeply into him, two dark chocolate pools. McQueen and Wood’s chemistry is instant—a clap of thunder.
But it gets better. The stakes get higher. Angie discloses to him that she’s pregnant.
“Congratulations,” he murmurs.
“Don’t worry,” she replies, “I won’t make any trouble for you…”
Again: this is 1963. Love with the Proper Stranger is one of the earliest mainstream films to acknowledge abortion as well as the terrifying practices that happens when abortion is illegal.
Natalie Wood should have won an Academy Award for her role as Angie. She is at once humorous, complex, and tragic as Angie Rossini. This film is one of my favorite romantic comedies and dramas because Wood doesn’t shy away from her character. One could argue, Wood is at one with Angie—the blend into each other. She also amplifies the other actors she works with.
When they are above an abandoned flat, waiting for Angie’s back-alley abortion, they get to know each other more. Angie, somehow, pries into Rocky’s soul. She says she finds it funny, considering him linked to family. Rock is a man, an immigrant kid, who’s compulsively rebelled against his orthodox upbringing. He’s so far departed from himself, he too finds the idea of his life united with his family—let alone, a new family—somewhat alien.
“That’s what makes it rough,” he mumbles, “when they love you.”
Automatically, something registers between Angie and Rocky’s eyes. What does it mean to be found when you’ve been searching for forever? And they both look so cynical. How will their family help or hurt a world in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War?
Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood’s chemistry is magnetic, you can’t tear your eyes away. Angie and Rocky’s eventual decision to keep their baby and raise it together does more for me than any romantic movie I’ve seen.
One of the most endearing scenes is the one of Rocky and Angie in the cab. Angie has cried herself to sleep on Rocky’s shoulder. Rocky, an avowed playboy, tenderly caresses her hand as they travel across New York City in the middle of the night. He puts her up in his apartment and watches her sleep through the night.
The next morning, he confronts the men in her family and tells them that he got her pregnant. Rocky gets a black eye from Angie’s older brother, Dominick.
Angie, when confronted with it all, decides to raise the child independently, without the help of Rocky or her family. What I most appreciate the film is the cast and crew’s decision to make it Angie’s choice. Angie is terrified of raising a child out of wedlock. She’s terrified of raising a child at how young she is. Yet, she’s more terrified of what happens if she dies during an abortion. She is moved by Rocky’s love and care for her. She’s amazed at her decision to face motherhood, seemingly alone. Then—the beautiful and yet imperfect ending.
For me? My favorite Natalie Wood film of all time is Love with the Proper Stranger. This is a very human film. It doesn’t sugar coat things, it just exists. It’s perfect.
Abby Sheaffer is a columnist for Cinema in Paradise.
Love with the Proper Stranger is available to stream for $2.99 on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Google Play.