I once sat with director Richard Quine in the same gloomy house in Beverly Hills where he killed himself on June 10, 1989. Two years prior, I was interviewing him for a documentary about John Fante produced by French television. Quine had gotten to know the writer when he filmed Fante’s novel, Full of Life, in 1956, and when they later spent three very dissipated months together in Naples working on an unrealized project called The Roses. During our taping, Quine was a model of civility, not the least bit ruffled at being questioned less about his own work than about Fante’s, yet something in the sadness he clearly exuded made my colleagues and me stay longer and talk with him until evening. Although Quine was seated beneath a very large painting of Nancy Kwan, his star in The World of Suzie Wong (1960), his mind was mostly on Kim Novak, the former Thor-refrigerators spokesgirl whom Columbia’s Harry Cohn had entrusted Quine to groom into an actress, and possibly a star.

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Keep 'em laughing: Quine calls the shots

As an ex-actor, Quine — eight of whose films will screen during LACMA’s two-week retrospective, “Richard Quine at Columbia” — seemed like a good choice to help Novak, a woman as insecure about acting as her real first name (Marilyn) would suggest. And on the face of their first film together, a thinly disguised redo of Double Indemnity called Pushover (1954), Cohn must have felt vindicated for having put her in Quine’s hands. Except, of course, that Quine kept her firmly there. They were to make three more movies together, two passable comedies, and a melodrama called Strangers When We Meet (1960), which is hands down Quine’s best — a film so nourished by what was going on behind the cameras as to make Truffaut’s Day for Night seem like very weak tea.

Quine had many dalliances with his actresses (including Judy Holliday and Natalie Wood) before and after, but the affectionate way he still spoke about Novak three decades later suggests she meant a bit more. In 1959, when they were shooting Strangers When We Meet around Bel Air and Malibu, their romance was so public that the brass at Columbia took the unusual decision to build a real house instead of a set. They bought — not leased — the plot in Bel Air where Kirk Douglas’ architect is building client Ernie Kovacs’ house in the movie. The studio planned to give the house to Quine and Novak as a wedding present, as Quine was to marry his star right after the shoot — the wrap party to end all wrap parties. But Novak panicked, bolted and left him at the altar, with only the key to happiness (he got the house).

Strangers, on the surface a mediocre potboiler by Evan Hunter about suburban life (with leering Walter Matthau as a neighbor and panicky wife Barbara Rush, we’re just a few blocks away from Payton Place), is really about professional ambitions: The subplot involves Douglas pushing Kovacs — a best-selling author — to go for an unconventional house that would best suit who he is, just as he talks him into writing a “real novel” instead of his usual crowd-pleasing mush. Quine, a serious man mostly known as a maker of commercial pap, clearly identifies with both characters, and their scenes together are by far the best in the picture. Douglas kept seething throughout the production, feeling that Quine was keeping him at arm’s length, not only due to his infatuation with Novak, but also because of the clear complicity between Quine and Kovacs, who had worked together before. But Douglas’ frustration works for the picture and its sense of a man torn between love and responsibility, not only with regard to his family, but also his work.

There is a great scene in a Malibu restaurant, when Novak has to come up with lame excuses as to why she let herself be screwed by the supermarket bag boy (or the milkman — it’s that kind of film). You barely hear the bad lines; you just see the panic in her eyes, looking not at a furious and unforgiving Douglas sitting across from her, but beyond the camera at Quine — searching, maybe, for excuses to leave him. When she did leave, not quite at the end of the film, Quine was publicly humiliated. Some wag, in spite of the news, ordered champagne delivered to the set, which had to be returned. But the two former lovers remained friends, and even made one more film together, The Notorious Landlady, two years later.

“Kim knew she’d just lucked into stardom and was not well equipped for it,” Quine told me that day in 1987. “She knew she’d have to work at it, and she did. She was a bright and intelligent woman. She knew that for most people, she was still the gal who posed for those Thor-refrigerator ads.”

If Quine remains best known for his very successful comedies, there is a dark streak running through his work that stemmed from personal tragedies enough to make getting dumped by Kim Novak seem like a piece of cake. In 1987, then only in his 60s, he deeply resented the fact he wasn’t able to work anymore in Hollywood. And the hunting shotgun he used to kill himself sounds all too close to the one that crippled his first wife, actress Susan Peters, on New Year’s Day, 1945. They had been married just more than a year and were hunting for duck near San Diego. “All my life, I’ll hear that shot,” Quine said in a 1946 interview. Even if she kept up a brave front for a few years, both with and without Quine, the very gifted Peters’ career (a great hope for MGM after her Oscar-nominated turn in Random Harvest) had been cut short, and she starved herself to death in October 1952, at 31.

When I met Quine, he was still ruminating on his past humiliations — among them the nightmare that was The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), his second collaboration with Peter Sellers (and the last film on which he would work), and the picture he was supposed to produce and direct for Mickey Rooney’s company, with the premonitory working title The Picture That Nobody Should See, over which he sued and was countersued. Maybe, as his friend Blake Edwards said at the time, he was simply tired of waiting for the phone to ring. Or maybe, as he pressed the trigger in that gloomy Beverly Hills house, Quine was trying to silence the earlier shot he really had kept hearing all his life. *

RICHARD QUINE AT COLUMBIA | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Through Sat., Aug. 16 | www.lacma.org

Philippe Garnier is the Los Angeles–based film correspondent for Libération and the author of the books Honni soit qui Malibu: Quelques ecrivains à Hollywood and Bon pied, bon oeil: Deux rencontres avec André De Toth, le dernier borgne d’Hollywood.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story contained a misplaced final line which was removed August 11, 2008.

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