Three Strangers (1946)
You know from the over-scored, overwrought opening credits that Three Strangers isn't going to be a subtle film, but you know it's going to be fun. The premise is nutty: A gorgeous, fashionable young woman lures two strangers to her London home on the cusp of Chinese New Year to engage in a ritual before the statue of Kwan Yin, goddess of fortune (in the film; she's the goddess of compassion in real life). As the fake legend goes, Kwan Yin will grant a wish made by three people who are strangers to one other at the stroke of midnight, but they must all have the same wish. As luck would have it, each of these strangers could use a big chunk of money and one of them has a sweepstakes ticket, so that is what they wish for: that the ticket pays off and they split the winnings evenly.
So who are these strangers? The beautiful, somewhat psychotic ringleader is Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a woman whose husband, David, (nine-foot tall Alan Napier) has fallen in love with another. She would like the money to win him back, but first she thinks it would be useful to destroy his happiness and mess with his career.
Then there's ethically-challenged attorney, Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet), who would like the money at first to buy his way into an exclusive club, but later needs it to cover some losses he made speculating with the funds from one of his clients' trust. Greenstreet is not his best in this picture, in my humble O, but his role is pivotal.
At last, there is the affable drunken thief, Johnny West (Peter Lorre), who would really like to buy his favorite pub and drink away happily for the rest of his days. By far, his is the purest goal. Johnny is mixed up in a bungled theft that ended in the murder of a police officer. At any moment his accomplices could pin their deed on him, but his girlfriend, Icey (Joan Lorring) is doing her best to keep that from happening.
The three make their wish that dark and stormy night, and for the rest of the film, we learn more about each of them. How crazy Crystal is; how slimy Jerome K. Arbutny is (he always says his name that way); and what a lovable, go-with-the-flow, kind of criminal Johnny is — you know, typical Peter Lorre. Incidentally, the casting of Lorre as the tipsy romantic lead was a bold and effective choice by director Jean Negulesco, because the part was originally considered for the likes of Erroll Flynn, David Niven, and Leslie Howard. And the picture is worth seeing just for the sweetness Lorre brings to an otherwise sad and hapless character.
But the winner of this film is Geraldine Fitzgerald. Her particular brand of vengeful, manipulative villainy is adorable. There is one scene especially, in which Crystal meets with her estranged husband's new love and convinces the girl that not only is her husband still sleeping with her, Crystal is now pregnant. Big, fat lies told well under the guise of compassion. As Crystal leaves the sobbing girl's apartment, she stops at the closed door and gives the most enchanting smile of delight at her handiwork and practically skips down the corridor. She manages everyone expertly and is deservedly very proud of herself. Fitzgerald's portrayal of this exceptionally high-maintenance pot-stirrer who hates to lose with a coldness behind the eyes that would make a cobra blush.
Of course the sweepstakes ticket (remember that?) draws the name of of a sure thing in the Grand National. Apparently, that provides some kind of payoff (I don't know how those things work), and Jerome K. Arbutny, needing immediate funds, wants to cash in his share. But the original agreement/wish was for the horse to win the grand prize. Trouble ensues and one of the three is murdered.
I would love to spoil this for you, but you can see Three Strangers streaming or on DVD and I heartily recommend you give it a try. If you stick with it through the opening sequence and some bad cockney accents, you'll be glad you did. The film was written by John Huston, after all, and it is a close, deliberate cousin of the hugely successful Maltese Falcon. In fact, Geraldine Fitzgerald was up for the part of Brigid O'Shaughnessy, but her troubled relationships with Jack Warner thwarted that plum opportunity. Perhaps this was her consolation prize.
Geraldine Fitzgerald certainly gets to wear some great clothes while wreaking gorgeous havoc. See it.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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