• Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger

Over the past few months, I’ve been delving into the work of director Robert Mulligan, a veteran of early TV who went on to a respectable—though now largely neglected—career in feature films (I wrote about some of my discoveries here). Recently I watched his Love With the Proper Stranger in the same week I caught up with Inside Llewyn Davis, and I was surprised by how much the films had in common. Stranger came out in 1963, just two years after Davis takes place; both are set in New York City and feature an unsuccessful musician as the main character; and in both the hero’s recruited by a former one-night stand to arrange an abortion. These similarities may be coincidental, but then the Coen brothers display greater affinity than most of their peers for earlier eras of Hollywood filmmaking (in most of their period pieces, the dialogue evokes how people spoke in movies at that time). It’s not unlikely that they screened Mulligan’s film when they were writing theirs.

In any case, both films get lots of mileage from the city in winter. It’s a natural setting for stories about lonely souls, as it comes ready-made with evocative images: empty or drastically depopulated neighborhood blocks; men and women insulated under coats and gloves; cold light and early sunsets; and the spectacle of Christmas shopping, which often intensifies feelings of isolation in those who already feel apart from the crowd. Love With the Proper Stranger begins and ends with crowd scenes, as if reminding us what any intimate story has to contend with when it takes place in a big city. Much of the drama takes place in cramped apartments—even when there’s no crowd onscreen, we know we’re never very far from one. Mulligan grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx (as did his longtime producing partner, Alan J. Pakula), and there’s an authenticity to the movie’s boxed-in feel.

The first scene, set in early morning, depicts an open call for independent musicians held in a large ballroom. Mulligan introduces the setting in a long shot from on top of a balcony, making the struggling players seem like bees in a hive. (I’m surprised the Coens didn’t set any scenes of Inside Llewyn Davis at an open call like this—this image would have fit perfectly in their film.) Within a few shots, we zero in on Steve McQueen’s Rocky Papasano, a trumpeter living from gig to gig. He’s about to learn that his fling from over the summer—a shopgirl played by Natalie Wood—is pregnant, and she’s tracked him down at the ballroom to confront him. It’s a bitter twist on an old Hollywood standby, the former lovers reconnecting in a crowd. Here, the reunion is sobering rather than euphoric—but since the characters are played by Wood and McQueen, we’re cued to expect that things will turn around.

That change doesn’t happen for a while, though. For more than half of its running time, Love With the Proper Stranger concerns the characters’ attempt to procure an illegal abortion. Their relationship for this stretch of the film is something of a Kieslowskian antiromance, based on problem solving and shared regret. Indeed, the hours leading up to their meeting with the abortionist—a lengthy passage that would work as a stand-alone short film—reminded me of the third episode of Kieslowski’s Decalogue, which concerns a pair of former lovers who reconnect on Christmas Eve. This passage trades in the sort of material that Mulligan did best: the compact narrative that builds up to sudden revelations of character, as in a short story or one-act dramas.

I wonder if the entire film was constructed around this episode, which outshines the remainder of the film in terms of seriousness and intensity. Prior to the early 1960s, the Production Code forbade Hollywood from making movies in which the heroine considers having an abortion. Proper Stranger comes from a transitional period after the Code was loosened but not yet eliminated completely, when American filmmakers began cautiously approaching subject matter that had been off-limits for so long. In a sense, the film’s story—of two emotionally arrested characters thrust into adulthood—is a perfect vehicle for the growing pains of the era.