FROM THE ARCHIVES: Three Strangers
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

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Produced by Wolfgang Reinhardt; directed by Jean Negulesco; written by John Huston and Howard Koch; cinematography by Arthur Edeson; edited by George Amy; music by Adolph Deutsch; starring Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peter Lorre, Alan Napier, Rosalind Ivan, and Joan Lorring. DVDD, B&W, 92 min.,1946. A Warner Archive release.

In a distant time (2007) hopes were high that Warner Home Video might favor us with a DVD box set dedicated to the studio’s pairings of “The Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet) and “The Little Man” (Peter Lorre). The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), sure, and for the sake of completion, their cameos in In This Our Life(1942) and Hollywood Canteen (1944). Also their other World War II movies, Background to Danger (1943), Passage to Marseille (1944), and The Conspirators (1944), where they add a touch of Euro-menace to the proceedings. But failing a ten-DVD undertaking, a triple-threat set—let’s call it the “Lorre and Greenstreet Intrigue Collection,” grouping The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Three Strangers (1946), and their final film together, The Verdict (1946)—would have sufficed.

None of it came to pass in the changed economy for pressed DVDs. But most of them are now available, with The Conspirators and Three Strangers joining Background to Danger and The Verdict as MOD discs. While we wait for The Mask of Dimitrios, we can savor Three Strangers, which, like the entertaining Dimitrios and The Conspirators (a stodgy propaganda piece) was directed by Jean Negulesco. The director, who made his mark in noir before turning toward glossier fare like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and The Best of Everything (1959), was something of a fabulist (he titled his autobiography Things I Did and Things I Think I Did) and Three Strangers taps into a vein of fantasy that sets it apart from its genre.

London, 1938. As Chinese New Year approaches, Crystal Shackelford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) has solicitor Jerome K. Arbutny (Greenstreet) over to her flat—and we get a great Greenstreet double take when he realizes that Johnny West (Lorre), a congenial drunk, is already there. The two men have been approached, she explains, to make a joint wish to her bronze statue of Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of fortune and destiny. Desiring money to improve their lots in life, the three strangers go in on a ticket for the Grand National Sweepstakes horse race, which is to be held the following week. They agree not to sell if it is chosen, but wait until the race is run. Kwan Yin smiles upon them, as their ticket draws the favorite—but by then we’re hip-deep in their storylines.

The grasping Shackelford wants her understandably straying husband (Alan Napier) back, and will stop at nothing to do so; the upright Arbutny, who wants to be part of the exclusive Barrister’s Club, is about to be caught out in the misuse of the trust fund of an eccentric client (Rosalind Ivan); and West just wants to buy a bar and kick back with his girlfriend (Joan Lorring) after a convoluted episode of robbery, imprisonment, and murder. Under Kwan Yin’s gaze, the three meet again on race day and their bond swiftly unravels.

That the idolatry at the heart of Three Strangers recalls The Maltese Falcon is no accident. John Huston and Howard Koch’s original screenplay, written in 1936, was going to be reshaped as a Falcon follow-up with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Greenstreet until the front office realized it no longer had the rights to their characters. The colorful, incident-rich Three Strangers works just fine as a standalone, however, with the supernatural elements (Arbutny’s well-heeled client communes with her deceased husband) contributing to the suspense.

Much of the film’s appeal is of course conjured by its performers. The two stars have ample opportunities to play off one another at each end of the film, and hold up their individual threads with typical distinction—Greenstreet, who must have enjoyed playing a character with an eye for the ladies, makes Arbutny’s downfall rivetingly uncomfortable. (I think Warner must have paid him by each bead of sweat that breaks out on his forehead.) The piano-tinkling, Shakespeare-quoting West is an unusually thoughtful and romantic part for Lorre, and he and Lorring establish a charming rapport (one of the more obscure Oscar nominees, for 1945’s The Corn is Green, she would also appear in The Verdict).

Giving the leads a run for their money in Fitzgerald. The movie’s dark heart belongs to Crystal, one of the more poisonous specimens of femme fatale in noirdom. The trailer included on the disc (a workmanlike transfer) refers to her as “The Strange Woman,” and that is no exaggeration, as she coolly summons the fates throughout its beguiling scenario. “It’s another triumph of terror by the masters of mystery!” says the trailer, and I heartily agree.

Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

To purchase Three Strangers, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine