Back in the gentler time of the 1970s, nothing short of a cancer diagnosis was more devastating than being told you had VD. Even though nearly all forms were curable with antibiotics by then, it still caused the kind of shame that ruined lives and tore families apart. Of course, by the following decade doctors would discover a sexually transmitted illness that made old fashioned VD look like a summer cold, but in 1975 we still had Someone I Touched, quite possibly (yet disappointingly) the most tasteful movie ever made about contracting syphilis.
The movie opens with professional bearer of bad news Frank Berlin (Andy Robinson), a Department of Health wonk whose job is tracking down people who may be spreading VD. He first drops the bomb on Terry (Glynnis O’Connor), a wayward 20 year-old supermarket cashier, who may have passed it on to customer Sam Hyatt (James Olson) after a one night stand. Sam, in turn, presumably passed it on to his wife, Laura, played by Cloris Leachman. Leachman, evidently so dedicated to her role that she even sang the movie’s theme song, is nonetheless an odd choice at nearly fifty years old to play a suburban housewife in the blush of young marriage and trying to have a baby.
There are hints that the marriage is already strained to begin with. Laura, who also works as a book editor, is the kind of woman who dresses in a full length gown and perfectly matched jewelry even when she’s just fixing dinner for her and her husband, while Sam seems to be drawn to a more carefree, relaxed lifestyle. Nevertheless, he’s reluctant to tell her about his diagnosis, especially once she reveals that she’s pregnant. The truth comes out eventually, though, and while Laura’s unborn child is spared the hideous complications that can come from syphilis during pregnancy, her relationship with Sam seemingly comes to an end.
Meanwhile, Terry, who lives in a tiny house (undoubtedly on the wrong side of the tracks) with her nagging, bitter mother, struggles with her own shame, seemingly without a friend to lean on and with Frank from the Department of Health the only person who offers her sympathy. Sam, on the other hand, gets plenty of sympathy from his thirsty secretary, who tries to take him home with her barely a week after he’s split up with Laura, while Laura is, of course, passive-aggressively chided by her best friend, who chirpily claims, not quite in so many words, that she would probably take her husband back no matter how lousily he treated her.
A twist comes a little more than halfway through the movie when–say whaaaaaaaaat–we find out that while Sam has first stage syphilis, Laura has secondary syphilis, meaning that she’s had it longer, and thus passed it on to him. It turns out that Laura got it from her boss (Kenneth Mars, Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein), after a month long affair! Secure in the knowledge that they both fucked up (though, to be fair, Laura fucked up a little more than Sam did), they decide to work things out.
Though sadly disappointing in any real fireworks (save for Laura sobbing “I might have given birth to a baby with no aaaaaaaaarrrrrrms“), Someone I Touched is an understated take on what could easily descend into camp. Sam and Laura’s marriage and Terry’s lonely existence are their own individual little domestic dramas; interestingly they never intersect until the very end of the movie, and without the explosive confrontation you would expect, given the subject. This is at least as much, perhaps more, of a standard “rich white people are secretly unhappy” drama than it is a VD cautionary tale. Laura, brittle and dissatisfied with her life for reasons that are never explained, spends virtually all her time at home cleaning, while mopey, balding, perpetually mid-life crisis having Sam wonders why they can’t be more spontaneous. Syphilis is really the least of their problems.
The movie also curiously suggests that Laura might actually be in love with her boss (they certainly seem to show more genuine warmth towards each other than she and Sam do), creating the impression that she’s decided to work things out with Sam more to keep up appearances than anything else. If that was intentional, it’s a rather bleak and cynical ending. “I think we’re gonna have the toughest kid on the block,” Laura says to Sam. I hope so, because if that kid makes it to kindergarten without his or her parents getting a divorce, it’ll be a miracle.
Original airdate: February 26, 1975
Available on Amazon Prime