The Fate of Unscrupulous Schemers

'Three Strangers'

by Michael Barrett

13 July 2012

Life as gamble and shell game
 
cover art

Three Strangers

Director: Jean Negulesco
Cast: Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Geraldine Fitzgerald

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Walking the night streets of London, eyebrows a-twitch, Geraldine Fitzgerald (beautiful but neurotic) attracts the attention of Sidney Greenstreet (phlegmatic but smouldering), who follows her up to her apartment only to discover it’s already occupied by Peter Lorre (dissolute but tender-hearted), drinking and playing the piano. She’s gathered them together as three strangers to fulfill a strange ritual: they must make a joint wish before the idol of a Chinese goddess, Kwan Yin. They agree to wish for the fulfillment of a lottery ticket, and then go their separate ways.

The rest of the film follows their fates as unscrupulous schemers. Lorre right away lands in prison and seems destined for the hangman, while Greenstreet courts a widow who believes she’s in communication with her late husband’s spirit. Fitzgerald ruins the life of her own husband in an attempt to win him back. How will their paths meet again? In this mysterious, compelling screenplay by John Huston and Howard Koch, skipping across sequences smoothly directed by Jean Negulesco, it all comes together in a complicated development about betting on a horse. Life as a gamble and a shell game, a world of fate and superstition misread as destiny by those who project their obsessions and character across its face. As for the overall darkness of its vision, well, what can be said about a movie in which Lorre plays the most sympathetic character?

Made on demand by Warner Archive, this print isn’t in as great shape as most Warner films of the era. Soft in image and sound, it shows the flashes and jitters of incipient deterioration at one point. The story is still fascinating and the three stars have hardly been more vivid.

Three Strangers

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