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I have to confess that the name Peter Lorre on a cast list is an automatic green light for this movie viewer. The only drawback is that the fine actor is used so sparsely, even in his better film appearances. His role in The Maltese Falcon is more than satisfying, and I love Lorre's act as an Esperanto teacher in the underrated Confidential Agent. Warners seldom gave him 'star' billing, but they did pair him up with his Falcon co-conspirator Sydney Greenstreet in a trio of delightful mysteries. 1944's The Mask of Dimitrios is a true film noir about international intrigue, and the third film The Verdict (incidentally Don Siegel's first signed feature) is a snappy whodunnit. Shoved out of his own first directing assignment by John Huston (who said anybody in Hollywood was a nice guy?), Negulesco went back to short subjects for three more years before receiving Three Strangers as a sort of consolation prize. At first glance the show sounds like a gloss on Falcon tricked out with some spiritualist mumbo jumbo. Happily, it turns out to be a much more accomplished piece of work. For lovers of unappreciated studio talent the movie is a treasure trove. Both Lorre and Greenstreet are given really meaty roles, and favorite Geraldine Fitzgerald gets to shine as well.
The busy, eventful original screenplay is by John Huston (seems fitting) and Howard Koch. The unpromising beginning has the unhappy Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) pick up two total strangers to share her 'magic wish' to an Asian idol called Kwan Yin, that will bring them riches. They remain anonymous to each other until the appointed hour of wishing, to fulfill the mystical promise. The three decide to put their wish on a cheap sweepstakes ticket, and make a bargain to share the proceeds only after they bet the assumed winnings in a horse race soon to be run. As it turns out, all three strangers become embroiled in crazy, life-altering events. Shady lawyer Jerome Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) foolishly loses the money of his client, the widow Lady Rhea Belladon (Rosalind Ivan), on an illegal investment. He hopes to save himself from ruin by marrying Belladon, but she turns him down because the spirit of her husband forbids it, from beyond the grave. The spirit, she says, also tells her to have Arbutny's books examined. Alcoholic thief Johnny West (Peter Lorre) gets in hot water when the crook Bertram Fallon (Robert Shayne) brings him along on a robbery that turns into a murder. When Fallon saves his own neck by framing the innocent Johnny for the killing, girlfriend Icey Crane (Joan Lorring) switches her affections. But she can't keep poor Johnny from being convicted for murder in the first. Crystal Shackleford is sincere about her belief in the power of Kwan Yin, but her motives are far from benign. She'll do anything to retain her hold on her estranged husband David (Alan Napier), and behaves like a psychotic when David reveals that he wants to marry a girl he has met in Canada, Janet (Marjorie Riordan). As the 'magic' horse race approaches the three become more desperate, and none of their dreams are coming true.
The philosophical loser Johnny West is a real John Huston character. His advice is sound: "Don't ever get mixed up with a Chinese goddess. That's the worst thing you can do." Three Strangers cooks up a trio of tight stories that deliver pretty much what all audiences are after -- mystery, suspense, crime, romance, jealousy, murder... and a bit of goofy mysticism thrown in for good measure. Poor attorney Arbutny can't seem to get ahead. He browbeats his miserable employees while bemoaning the fact that his less than stellar social position is keeping him from membership in an exclusive barrister's club. He dismisses Crystal's belief in Kwan Yin, only to be humiliated by a daffy widow's idiotic fantasies that her husband is sending her the equivalent of phone sex from the great beyond. Crystal is absorbed in her selfish fantasies, which include indiscretions that apparently ruined her marriage long ago, when her husband was on assignment in China (shades of The Painted Veil?). Now she's intent on forcing David to adhere to her romantic fantasies -- her obsession with mystical fates is her undoing as well.
For once in his career, Peter Lorre's story is the best -- he actually plays a semi-heroic character! The setup is like something out of a Gerald Kersh novel. 1 Lorre's West is holed up with a likeable thug named Gabby (Peter Whitney), both of whom become fugitives thanks to the slimy Fallon. Johnny West is given a real love interest in Joan Lorring's Icey Crane, to whom he speaks of existential fate and his acceptance of his bum luck as a cosmic joke. While Greenstreet's lawyer wallows in his own duplicity and bad Karma, Peter Lorre weathers a legal nightmare and in the process grows as a character. The moments he shares with Ms. Lorring (she'd come back in The Verdict are quite touching.
"The Golden Age of Hollywood", when hundreds of talented actors were corralled under various moguls like stable horses, certainly had its good points. But it also put limitations on careers, as stars were frequently stuck playing only with actors at their home studios. Bette Davis didn't get much of an opportunity to play with someone like Clark Gable, for instance. And once a star like Lorre was demoted to supporting player, his roles became glorified cameos, shoehorned into scripts "to get in that creepy angle". This is why we like Lorre so much in his horror output, where his characters could really cut loose. Face it, Fritz Lang's genius in "M" is matched by Lorre's pathetic-sympathetic performance as a child killer. Alfred Hitchcock always needed 'warm' performances to humanize his movies, and The Man Who Knew Too Much wouldn't work without Lorre's eccentricity.
Sydney Greenstreet's contribution is solid, if more in keeping with his usual character. The difference here is that Arbutny is humorously sympathetic, even when he's foolishly thinking he can fool other people. When the ditzy widow gets the better of Arbutny, we can't help but feel sorry for him. Geraldine Fitzgerald expertly played intelligent women and also a few with something loose in the cranial cavity, like her semi-incestuous sister in Robert Siodmak's oddball The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. But most viewers associate her with thankless best friend parts, as in the Bette Davis die-O-thon Dark Victory. Here she's a bona fide b____, who inadvertently aspires to femme fatale status. It's a fascinating turn.
Three Strangers is tightly paced, fairly credible and packed with reversals of fortune and twists of fate. The point seems to be that people don't need magic Chinese idols to turn their lives into crazy puzzles. The movie is generous to its characters, especially Peter Lorre's. It's highly recommended.
I have another confession -- I haven't seen Three Strangers until now, because I confused it with The Verdict. Savant is not synonymous with omniscient, I guess.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Three Strangers is a good transfer of a show that perhaps looks a little old-fashioned for 1946, which is not at all a bad thing. The opening is a bit scratched and some frame smearing occurs at the 56-minute mark, but otherwise the show looks very good. The audio track is solid, giving a fine showcase for Adolf Deutsch's interesting soundtrack, which begins with a saxophone melody that doesn't seem to belong in a Warner's picture from 1945.
The WAC includes an original trailer in which Greenstreet talks directly to the camera, evoking comparisons with The Maltese Falcon. The hyped text is great: "A Triumph of Terror by Masters of Mystery!" The cast is identified as "The Fat Man", the "Small Man" and the "Strange Woman". I should think that that's the epitome of typing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Three Strangers rates:
1. Kersh is the author of the original book Night and the City, which is far more depraved and tawdry than the notable Jules Dassin film noir.. Think slimy London lowlifes betraying each other at every opportunity.
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T'was Ever Thus.