Friday, October 19, 2007

Three Strangers (1946, USA)

A strange film, but like virtually all films that teamed Peter Lorre with Sydney Greenstreet, a good one. Based on the short story Three Men and A Girl by John Huston, he had help writing the script from Howard Koch, the man behind the script to Orson Welles’ legendary radio broadcast The War of The Worlds. The project was originally developed for Humphrey Bogart and Jane Astor, and therefore is sometimes dissed as a Maltese Falcon (1941) rip-off. In truth, Three Strangers is a much different film that while sharing many of the creative features of Huston’s legendary first film is still very much its own. Much less a detective film than an oddly existential, almost depressingly pessimistic discourse on fate, the film features three protagonists whose individual stories having relatively little to do with each other, the only common bond between them being the winning horserace ticket that all three see as their savior in one way or another.
Three Strangers opens a dark and foggy night in London with Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) cruising the busy streets, for all appearances a discreet (but most likely expensive) streetwalker. She catches the eye of the lawyer Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet, who had obviously added some weight to the 280 pounds he had already carried in his film debut in The Maltese Falcon), who follows her home. There Crystal introduces him to Johnny West (Peter Lorre), and it is revealed that she is the follower of some obscure goddess and that that very night is a special night, a night in which if three strangers meet and do some mumbo jumbo stuff, they will all have their biggest desire granted. They place all their luck on a horserace ticket that West happens to have and go their separate ways, bound by a ticket even as their lives spiral further downwards. Johnny is on the lamb for taking part in a robbery while drunk during which someone got killed, the murder which eventually he (unrightfully) takes the blame for. Arbutny faces total ruin for illegal use and mismanagement (embezzlement?) of ditzy Lady Rhea Beladon’s funds. Crystal's estranged husband David Shackleford (Alan Napier) wants nothing else from her than a divorce, but she wants him back and is willing to ruin him to do so. A trio of anti-heroes, none of them particularly likeable—if Johnny ends up the film’s nominal hero, it is only by default, his evils being more weaknesses than to anything else. By the end of the film, he might be the only one of the three to still have his life ahead of him—indeed, perhaps he even finally has found the hope needed to take advantage of the new chance he has—but his situation is still hardly good, the race ticket now being too dangerous to cash in, even if not due to his fault.
A bizarre film to say the least, heavily influenced by Albert Camus and hardly the stuff one would think would get such good treatment from a studio of the time. Romanian-born director Jean Negulesco has a better grasp on the material than one would expect from someone who went on to make such films as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Despite whoever the movie’s script was originally meant for, Fitzgerald and Lorre more than make the film their own, the former excelling as a beautiful but egoistic, conniving bitch with a less than complete grasp upon reality, the latter believable as a detached, almost soulless alcoholic unable and unwilling to deal with life. As the third member of the party, Sidney Greenstreet excels (as always) as a calculating, less than honest and cold but polite lawyer who loses everything—including his sanity—at the end.

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