Strangers When We Meet: Getting to know Richard Quine

Richard Quine My Sister EileenFifty years from now, when they update the film history textbooks, which current directors will merit a section? Some of the older vets are obvious. Scorsese and Spielberg. Almodovar and Von Trier. Zhang Yimou. Household names to film connoisseurs. What about Francis Lawrence, Shane Black, Chris Buck, Pierre Coffin, and Zack Snyder? They directed (or co-directed) the top five box office successes in the USA in 2013. Their ledgers are still open, but it’s hard to imagine any of them getting a paragraph. Is that how it should be?

I’m not suggesting that a filmmaker is deserving of serious attention simply because he directed a handful of popular movies. But I do think it is useful to occasionally move off the canonical names and at least consider, or reconsider, those directors who have what appear to be more artistically modest careers, because in many ways, those modest careers made Hollywood what is was, and play at least a small part in what it has become. Haute couture may have outsized influence on fashion, but prêt-a-porter directly affects our lives to a greater degree.

No, Virginia, this is not about Robert Altman, a director who might warrant a paragraph or two in our future textbook. It is about Richard Quine.

Quine was not a great director. But he was a good one, and for a period of about ten years, from the early 50s to the early 60s, he created some fine entertainment. He helped launch the careers of several important actors. And his crash & burn in the mid-1960s says something about a culture in upheaval and an artist not nimble enough to maintain balance on shifting terrain.

Richard Quine began as an actor. You can see him playing Janet Blair’s shy suitor in the first filmed version of My Sister Eileen (1942). But he would move into writing and directing by the end of the decade and that is where he found his greatest success. A professional partnership with sharp comic writer Blake Edwards bore a lot of fruit early in the decade. They collaborated on several comedies with Mickey Rooney, and helped produce Rooney’s television show mid-decade. The three men also created a good noir, Drive a Crooked Road, in 1954.

That movie was something of a turning point for Quine, but the next one could be counted as a breakthrough. Another noir, Pushover (1954), revealed a much darker side (which should have prompted contemporary critics to allude to “Quine-nine,” though I’ve never seen such a reference). The highly underrated Fred MacMurray plays a morally ambiguous cop, not unlike his insurance salesman in Double Indemnity (1944), and the premise is similar to Rear Window, also out in 1954. Most importantly, he introduced a rather stunning young actress to the world. Part erotic, part tentative, Kim Novak would go on to star in three more Quine movies.

Richard Quine PushoverQuine seemed to hit his stride in the late 50s. Following Pushover, he returned to familiar territory, remaking My Sister Eileen as a musical, with a script by Edwards, and songs by Jule Styne and Leo Robin. This is medium octane stuff, but it is very pleasant, and a big improvement on the original comedy, which made the rather serious mistake of casting an arguably more alluring actress (Rosalind Russell) as the “plain” sister and letting the supposedly fabulous Eileen (Blair) founder. Quine cast the tragically under-utilised Betty Garrett in the “plain” role opposite Janet Leigh, and it works very well. He could not overcome the source material’s silly climax, and the movie isn’t brilliant. But it is very satisfying.

He also cast a young actor in a supporting role whose star was on the rise, and who would come to be most associated with Quine during the six movies they made together. The role Jack Lemmon plays in My Sister Eileen (1955) is not particularly special, but it hints at what is to come.

What “was to come” was Operation Mad Ball (1957), a highly entertaining service comedy which built on Lemmon’s early persona as a manipulative operator, somewhat of a better looking Ernie Bilko (Phil Silver’s sitcom was popular at the time). Rooney dropped in for a cameo, and Quine also debuted another meteoric screen talent. Playing the buffoon opposite Lemmon, in his first movie, was Ernie Kovacs.

Kovacs would be used to much greater effect in the following year’s witchcraft comedy, Bell, Book, and Candle, while Novak would star and Lemmon would provide quirky support. But the adaptation of John Van Druten’s play fails on several counts. Novak is miscast, as is her romantic partner, James Stewart, and when they embrace on the roof of a tall building early on, it’s hard not to be reminded of how much more effectively Alfred Hitchcock would use the same actors in Vertigo that very same year. Still, the movie has charm, and Lemmon, Kovacs, and Elsa Lanchester will all bring a smile to your face.

Lemmon would appear in the following year’s It Happened to Jane, in a role that fit much more closely with the persona he would eventually perfect – the harried milquetoast driven to action. Kovacs would be there too, in a bald wig. The director appeared to have learned a lesson about Novak’s limited comic range, and cast Doris Day opposite Lemmon. The results were nothing special. Again, merely pleasant.

Richard Quine Strangers When we MeetBut then he was back with Novak for a drama, and this is Quine’s most interesting movie. Strangers When We Meet (1960) was adapted by Evan Hunter from his own novel, and it is melodrama worthy of Douglas Sirk. Though occasionally hysterical, it traces a suburban affair between architect Kirk Douglas and the mysterious housewife played by Novak. Quine’s visuals were never better. Kovacs gives his best performance. There should always be a seaside bar with the Pacific crashing against the shore when you are ready to have your midlife crisis affair. And there is that magnificent moment in the middle when Novak’s tightly wound Stepford wife reveals a perverse previous affair. There are brushes with greatness in this movie, and if it doesn’t get there, it remains worth a look.

Over the next few years, Quine would maintain himself with several more pleasant comedies and romances before the wheels came off. The mid-60s were a turbulent time, as established artists tried to deal with a new youth-centric culture that had its own language and its own attitudes toward sex. In 1964, Billy Wilder made the salacious and mostly dreadful Kiss Me, Stupid, featuring Novak, which tried to capitalise on this new morality. Wilder was more talented than Quine, and if he couldn’t pull it off, it was unlikely Quine could either. So we got Sex and the Single Girl in 1964, which at least boasts an interesting cast (including Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall) and then the catastrophic How to Murder Your Wife in 1965. Lemmon was back, but he was no longer young and cute. The men are bores. The women are shrews. It tries hard to be provocative and funny, and it fails.

And that was basically it. Quine would direct several more movies of little note before finishing his career in television. The fact that other directors (Hitchcock and Wilder) did more with Novak and Lemmon is a pretty clear indication of Quine’s limitations. There are repeated, overplayed references to Tony Curtis looking like the famous actor Jack Lemmon in Sex and the Single Girl, which only points out how superior Some Like it Hot (1959) is to Quine’s more modest films. And yet, I still have a very warm spot in my heart for Richard Quine. I have a warm spot for Ernie Kovacs and the budding careers of Novak and Lemmon. Pushover, My Sister Eileen, and Strangers When We Meet are three films from three distinct genres that any director would be proud to have on his resume. And if you love Hollywood, even if he falls well short of the Pantheon, there has to be a small corner for a director like Richard Quine.

 

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

9 thoughts on “Strangers When We Meet: Getting to know Richard Quine

  1. I’m so glad you wrote about Quine: I discovered Strangers When We Meet two years ago, saw it and fell madly in love with it. For one thing, I found the character Kirk Douglas played (one of my favorite actors) a singular prototype for Mad Men’s Don Draper and an earlier version of the character Douglas later played in Kazan’s The Arrangement. I found the movie well ahead of its time (the sexually frustrated housewife who is shunned by her husband, the leering Walter Matthau in a truly despicable performance, the restlessness played to perfection by Douglas and so much more). I was surprised I had not heard of it before: it might not be a perfect film, but to me it seems like a masterpiece.

    • Thanks for your comments, Nandia. I think Evan Hunter deserves a lot of the credit for the relentlessness of the plotting and the adult nature of the characters. Fortunately, Quine was a versatile enough director to bring out what was best in the story — very good with the actors, and maybe because the concept of architecture is so fundamental to the story, it seems to have brought out his best visualization and design as well. However you analyze it, it’s just a very good movie.

  2. Good stuff, Bill. It may be an oversimplification, but I find Quine and Karlson to be good representations of the divergence between the traditional and more impersonal, but very competent, studio director and the more independent minded auteur. Quine was never as good at anything as Karlson was with violence, but I think he had broader range, and improved as one would expect over time before seeming to lose it. Karlson clearly had a sharper eye, and Full of Life strikes me as a director still learning how to reign in various elements of his project.

    I think by the time he made Suzie Wong, Quine was much better, though I prefer Strangers quite a bit. Synanon is a different story and it makes me think back to your essay on criticism a few weeks back. I didn’t see it until decades after it was made, and I came to it knowing something of the subsequent history of its subject. For a movie that treads a very fine line between melodrama and hysteria, I suspect that knowledge pushed me to focus on the hysteria.

    • I agree that Strangers is the better movie, but I saw Wong and Synanon in the theater when they were released and I was an impressionable kid, so my subjective memory of them is heightened. Also liked Bell Book and Candle for the same reason, Just saw Strangers recently, when the Kim Novak boxed set was released, and my opinion of her rose considerably. I suspect most of the pictures Quine directed were assignments, so he cant be held too accountable for the scripts (his last sceenplay was My Sister Eileen in 1955.) As he has a producer’s credit on Paris When It Sizzles, it seems probable that it was a picture he wanted to do,not just an assignment. If he really were interested in the French New Wave enough to want to parody it, it could put a whole different spin on How to Murder Your wife and Sex and the Single Girl.

      • I was mistaken about Quine being primarily a contract director. He worked for many different studios, and produced several of his own pictures, usually for Paramount or Columbia. Interestingly enough, Paris When it Sizzles was a co-production between Quine and his writer, George Axelrod, which signifies a deep personal commitment to getting it right.

        • Mentioning Axelrod gets me thinking of a topic I have wanted to look into more. He strikes me as a worthwhile case study of a writer’s role in American film. Moving from playwright, where he had a lot of control, to screenwriter, where he had virtually none, must have been a frustrating adjustment, and it’s no surprise he moved into producing and directing as soon as he had the chance. I’ve never seen the stage version of Phffft, a project that seems so much better suited to Quine than to Robson. 7 Year Itch and Bus Stop strike me as better plays than movies, but I don’t think Axelrod bears any blame for that. Rock Hunter is my favorite film from one of his plays, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon seeing how much Tashlin took that project away from him and made it his own, he realized he would need to produce in order to have proper control over his movies. He obviously hit a home run the first time out with Manchurian Candidate and had other successes like Paris and Love a Duck. I’ll leave out further mention of How to Murder Your Wife. I think I’ve been clear on my feelings there. His career is certainly worth looking at for anyone interested in understanding the challenges of being a screenwriter in Hollywood.

          • Axelrod is indeed a worthy case for study. His best screenplays, Breakfast at tiffanys and The manchurian Candidate, were adaptations of foolproof novels. there was no way a picture could go wrong with such material (Wait a Minute! The remake of Candidate stunk!!) William Inge’s Bus Stop was a decent play, and axelrod’s screenplay for it relatively faithful. But Seven year Itch was a dopey play made into a dopier picture. Tashlin could have done something with it though. he sure made something out of the trivial Can Success Spoil rock Hunter, and, while we aare back on Quine, he might even have made something of How to Murder Your Wife. He certainly would not have allowed, as Quine did, to let Verni Lisa ruin the picture. he would have made something funny of her shortcomings. Like his other original screenplays, Phffft, Goodbye Charlie, and Paris When it Sizzles. How to Murder Your Wife is pretty close to the kind of thing he tends to write on his own. I think he was better at adapting sure fire material.

  3. I know little about Quine (until now) so was interested to read this article Jon. I will have to leave it to others better qualified (Bill) to argue the merits of the films and style, as I have seen very few of those mentioned.
    Regards from England, Pete.

  4. While I agree that Quine made quite a few good movies, “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Synanon” being among my favorites, I think he is greatly flawed as a director. One example: in “Full of Life,” he shoots Richard Conte, an actor notorious for careless gesticulation of the limbs, in medium shot, with his arm movements dreadfully out of sync with the cirumstances of the scene as well as his dialog. compare this to Phil Karlson’s excellent handling of Conte in “The Brothers Rico,” always keeping him in tight close-ups so we dont see what a bad actor he is. Nevertheless, i am happy to see you writing about Quine, as he is ten times the director as the over-rated Spielberg who hasnt a decent scene to his credit, let alone a good movie.

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