It’s pretty straightforward, in the end: you pitch me a noir movie featuring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, I will drop everything else and watch the hell out of it, and then probably do a post about it.
Which is exactly what happened last night, when I spent one hour and a half with a bowl of dark chocolate ice cream and Jean Negulesco’s 1946 flick, Three Strangers.
And what a bizarre movie it was!
Set in London in 1938, the movie opens as a mysterious woman (Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald) basically picks up on the street two very different characters, a somewhat stuffy solicitor (Greenstreet) and a witty, cultured alcoholic (Lorre). According to a legend she proceeds to tell, on the night of the Chinese New Year, a statuette of the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin will grant a wish to three people, as long as they are strangers and they share the same wish. Hence the woman’s plan – pick up two strangers, agree on a shared wish, and then wait for midnight, as this is the Chinese New Year’s night.
From this point it’s the classic “beware of what you wish for” story, as the woman tries desperately to keep her marriage going despite the fact that her estranged husband is in love with another woman, the attorney embezzles some money from a client, and the alcoholic is involved in a robbery that ends with a dead policeman.
This being a noir, we can expect that none of this will end nicely.
The movie was apparently planned as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon, and John Huston had a script ready in the mid ’30s – and indeed the story shares some elements with The Maltese Falcon, namely the mysterious, exotic sculpture – but production was somewhat troubled, with a complicated casting history- at one point Bette Davis was supposed to star.
In the end it was shot in 1946, while Huston was still in the Army; the Falcon connection was dropped due to the fact that Warner Bros did not have the rights to the Hammett story any longer, but the main female character was portrayed by Fitzgerald, who had been considered for the part of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Lorre and Greenstreet do not reprise the same roles, but do portray similar characters.
Does the story have a supernatural element?
The whole Kwan Yin thing is preposterous (and for today’s standards, smells of cultural appropriation or Orientalism or whatever), but as a gimmick it works – maybe the characters are just convinced (despite some of their claims of rationalism) that the magic is working, maybe it’s all coincidences and self-deception. Or maybe, who knows, the legend is true.
For sure, their own failings will lead the characters to grief – but in the case of one of them, their basic decency will be rewarded, if in a sideways sort of way.
In the end, shifting from romantic melodrama to crime thriller to legal intrigue, the movie is a small, intricate but not over-complicated drama, filled with excellent performances: watching Greenstreet and Lorre is always a pleasure, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is excellent – and one wonders whatever got in the mind of her character’s husband, as she’s absolutely stunning and very seductive. But apparently she’s not the right social class or some other silly concern like that.
The supporting cast is very good, Jean Lorring standing out as a woman hopelessly smitten with Lorre’s character.
So yes, dropping everything and watching Three Strangers was a good idea, perfect for a hot summer night.