Sunday, January 25, 2009

Three Strangers (1946)

I just saw this interesting little black comedy this evening. I recorded it a couple of weeks ago off of TCM, but only got around to watching it tonight. It starred a couple of my favorite noir "second banana" players, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, along with Geraldine Fitzgerald, whom I remember from Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis.

The premise is kind of unusual. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays Crystal Shackleford, the estranged wife of a British consular official who, during her travels in China, has picked up and come to believe in a bronze idol to the Chinese Goddess of fortune and destiny, Kwan Yin. According to a legend, if three strangers gather before the idol on the night of the Chinese New Year and make a common wish, Kwan Yin will open her eyes and her heart and grant the wish. In order to facilitate this, Mrs. Shackleford has invited two strangers into her flat on this night. One is a respectable Barrister, Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) and the other is Johnny West (Peter Lorre). Without any of them learning the others' names, they agree to go into partnership on a sweepstakes ticket that Johnny West has bought for 10 shillings, and their wish is that the ticket win the sweepstakes.

After this opening, we come to learn more about our three protagonists. Mrs. Shackleford, as it turns out, is completely amoral and sociopathic. She is obsessed with winning back the affections of her husband, (Alan Napier) who has gone off on assignment to Canada and returned in love with another woman (Marjorie Riordan) and wanting a divorce. She refuses to consent to the divorce and attempts to ruin his career by spreading scandalous gossip to his superiors in the consular service and drives his new love interest away by telling her falsely that the couple has reconciled and she is pregnant with the husband's child.

Jerome K. Arbutny is revealed as a tyrant to his office staff, and we discover he has been speculating with the principle from a trust fund he administers. The investments, naturally, have not been doing well and he has become desperate for money. Sydney Greenstreet often played nasty men deliciously but here he takes his character's weakness and pettiness much further than usual, and his scenes of escalating madness are very effective.

As the real star of the film, Peter Lorre is wonderfully wry and quite lovable as one of life's eternal losers. Of the three strangers, Johnny West is the least villainous, being merely a drunken ne'er-do-well. Ironically, he is the one wanted by the police for being involved in a robbery in which a police officer is killed. In truth Johnny was duped into being involved and was so drunk at the time that he didn't know a robbery was in progress. A girl with the unlikely name of Icey (Joan Lorring) is helping to hide him from the cops. Johnny is a weak man, but gentle and intelligent and Icey ends up falling in love with him.

Joan Lorring and Arthur Shields

I won't spoil the ending, but I will tell you that, naturally, the sweepstakes ticket wins, but the results are not what any of our three strangers could have expected. Fickle fortune deals several surprises in this black comedy about human greed and fate's cruelty. Three Strangers has no big stars, no glamor, and only the sliest, cruelest humor. What it does have are the perfectly executed performances of the three principals, and that's enough to make it a neglected classic.

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