The intertwined themes of “love at first sight” and “missed connection” are a heady brew for those drawn to cinematic romances. We are tantalized by films in which the romantic leads lose one another through unhappy circumstances but remain steadfast in their belief that they are still meant for one another. This plot device is sometimes developed through the circumstance of reuniting at some future date, after the lovers have endured unexpected inconveniences. As The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously tells us in one of his lesser-known works, “Suddenly she realized that what she was regretting was not the lost past but the lost future, not what had not been but what would never be.”
Love Affair (1939) is a tender romance starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer that marked the beginning of a genre still popular to this day. It serves as the prototype for this type of plot device as it deals with missed connections and uncertain futures for lovers buffeted by fate. Later films of this variety also featured seemingly star-crossed lovers who, for unforeseen reasons, fail to reunite at the agreed-upon location—usually the Empire State Building. In a later version of this basic plot, An Affair to Remember (1957), Nick Ferrante (Cary Grant) and Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), star as the substitutes for Boyer and Dunne. At the start of the film, they are both engaged to other people. But they fall in love during a European cruise as they endure the pressures of pesky paparazzi.
Happily, the encounter with paparazzi in An Affair to Remember is less menacing than the one depicted in season 6 of Netflix’s The Crown, which offers a dramatic account of Princess Diana’s tragic car crash in a Paris tunnel. Instead, the actors bask in the glow of Hollywood’s golden age and the paparazzi are dazzled by Grant’s character with his mid-Atlantic accent, trademark tan, and graying temples, and Kerr’s with her fine features and pale skin under her luminous red hair. The two share a natural and playful chemistry. Although the film has questionable elements—like the implausible pretense that Grant is Italian or French and the suggestion that the genteel looking Kerr was once a cabaret singer—we can overlook these imperfections for the sake of romance. We are already asking: What happens if they fail to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months, as agreed? Or, what happens if one of them is hit by a car en route to the meeting? Those are contingencies the viewer is meant to ask while watching this golden oldie unfold.
Keep in mind that the film takes place in the 1950s, before the advent of technological advances that have made it possible for us in our time to find another person with just a few taps on an smartphone. Yet when Ferrante does locate his lost love, it’s because of an earlier telecommunications advance—the telephone book. He notices a “T. McKay” in that information source and voilà, he finds Terry.
In 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks as “Sam” and Meg Ryan as “Annie” updated the “Let’s meet on the top of the Empire State Building” theme. Sam is a widower in Seattle who is still mourning the loss of his wife. Annie is a single girl living in Baltimore and yearning for that true love connection she lacks with her fiancé, played by the affable Bill Pullman. Sam and Annie are brought to one another’s attention through a radio program with the help of Sam’s son, Jonah. The allure of New York City, a very tall building, and the possibility of a missed connection keep us wondering if the couple will ever finally meet. Unlike in An Affair to Remember, in Sleepless in Seattle the courting happens mostly at a distance. But, again, this reflects the technological advances of the 1990s, for example, cheap long distance phone calls. So the update on the theme works.
Yet the closest Hollywood has gotten to preserving the old storyline about lost and found love is the 1994 remake of Love Affair, starring the real-life Hollywood couple of Warren Beatty as Mike and Annette Bening as Terry. In this production, Beatty plays a playboy, not unlike Grant’s Ferrante or Beatty’s own real-life reputation prior to his marriage to Bening. Katharine Hepburn, in her last onscreen role, plays Mike’s aunt and steals the movie with her mature performance. True to the original story, Bening’s Terry disapproves of Mike’s playboy past. But over time and after meeting his aunt, she slowly comes to trust her suitor and falls in love. Both are engaged to other people but agree, per the already film-tested scenario, to meet again in three months. Once again, a tragic accident nearly keeps them apart, but in the end, love triumphs. Thus, we have a formidable recreation of the 1957 version of the love conquers all narrative.
With that comes the latest entrant to the missed connections category: 2023’s Love at First Sight which I also reviewed at my Substack. Hadley (Haley Lu Richardson), an American with a love for literature and Oliver (Ben Hardy), a Brit with a head for statistics, are a pair of “opposites attract” lovers who fall for each other at first sight. The film cites many statistics related to probabilities and the couples’ likelihood to weather loves’ challenges; chief among them is that they have a less than 6 percent chance of ever seeing one another again.
Hadley’s phone dies at the very moment Oliver’s phone number is added, and it seems irretrievably lost. But since we now have the internet and Hadley knows about Oliver from sitting next to him on a transatlantic flight, she should have been able to retrieve his email with just a little digging. It’s an awkward yet unavoidable flaw in the plot. One might ask, therefore: Why the refusal to make the storyline fit today’s technological realities? Perhaps it has to do with what would be lost in the attempt. The movie suggests that destiny is the Cupid needed to bring our lovers together again, as opposed to the obvious, though less romantic, deployment of technology.
Still, the film clearly demonstrates how the old trope of meeting at the top of the Empire State Building at a fixed time, or variations on that theme, ought to be a plot device of the past. Technology and telecommunications should render this kind of storyline obsolete, but that obviously hasn’t happened. Perhaps our romantic and wistful longing for something apart from our own initiative to bring us love is a difficult thing to let go. There’s just something in us that rejects the notion that the magic of love can be brought about by something as banal as pushing a button.
In the 1990s, when Craigslist was in its heyday, I remember periodically querying the “Missed Connections” link. I was curious to see what details surfaced when someone was trying to locate a lost love. Often the description was so vague that it could apply to any number of people. For example, “Woman with blond hair boarding the F train around 5pm with a green sweater, you looked at me. I had brown hair.” Despite these sometimes-garbled inquiries, there seemed something magical about these missed connections stories. This magic—which, after all, is a lot like love itself—might explain the continued appeal of meeting atop the former tallest building in New York, three or six months in the future.
The building is no longer the tallest and we no longer need to resurrect it out of central casting as our preferred location for such meetings, yet we yearn for the tale of missed connection and future love, lost, and then found. No matter what technological advances have occurred, the sacred magic of love is a constant and necessary theme of romantic comedy.