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THREE STRANGERS (director: Jean Negulesco; screenwriters: from a story by John Huston/John Huston/Howard Koch; cinematographer: Arthur Edeson; editor: George Amy; music: Adolph Deutsch; cast: Geraldine Fitzgerald (CrystalShackleford), Sydney Greenstreet (Arbutny), Peter Lorre (Johnny West), Peter Whitney (Gabby), Rosalind Ivan (Lady Rhea Belladon), Alan Napier (David Shackleford), Joan Lorring (Icy Crane), Robert Shayne (Fallon), Marjorie Riordan (Janet), Stanley Logan (“Major” Beach), Lumsden Hare (Sir Robert), Arthur Shields (Prosecutor); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Wolfgang Reinhardt; Warner Brothers; 1946)
“The intricately plotted messy film becomes enjoyable mainly because of the spirited performances.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on the story by John Huston, and is written by Huston and his longtime collaborator and friend Howard Koch. The episodic plot tells of an Irish sweepstake ticket bringing fortune and tragedy to three hard-luck strangers in London. Talented filmmaker Jean Negulesco(“The Mask of Dimitrios”/”How to Marry a Millionaire”/”Johnny Belinda”) directs a story that comes with a moralistic message (like don’t rely on idol worship to get your life together and take responsibility for your own life by doing the right thing), with many contrivances, and an undercooked conclusion that left me as cold as a kipper. The odd crime drama relies on conveying a sense of magic, which it never conveys. But the talented cast does the most it can with what it has to work with, and the intricately plotted messy film becomes enjoyable mainly because of the spirited performances.

On the eve of the Chinese New Year, in the spring of 1938, in London, the beautiful but bitchy Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) lures to her apartment from the street two male strangers–Jerome Artbutny (Sydney Greenstreet), a disreputable, bullying and snobbish lawyer who tried to make a fast buck handling the trust fund of the widow Lady Rhea Belladon (Rosalind Ivan) and invested in losing common stocks instead of in bonds as stipulated in the arrangement of managing the fund and the amiable lost soul drunkard Johnny West (Peter Lorre). They are brought together by Crystal to make a pact before her bronze statue of the Chinese goddess of Destiny and Fortune, Kwan Yin, which according to legend, will open its eyes and heart to three strangers at the stroke of midnight, on the Chinese New Year, and whatever is asked for, it will grant. Crystal suggests they ask for money and West talks them into becoming partners in the sweepstake ticket he bought. The strangers agree that if their horse is chosen, they will hold it until the Grand National is run and let it all ride on their horse winning. The strangers tell each other what they would do with the prize money: Crystal says she will use her share of the money to get back her wealthy husband, who after jilting her has been living in Canada the last two years; Arbutny hopes the money will ensure his election to the prestigious Barrister’s Club; and West wants to buy a bar so that he can drink without anyone bothering him.

While waiting for the results of the sweepstake drawing, we follow how the three strangers all are leading desperate lives with dire consequences: A drunken West was recruited by Fallon (Robert Shayne) to be a lookout in a robbery, but during the botched robbery committed by Fallon and Gabby (Peter Whitney) a cop was murdered by Fallon. When Fallon is charged with the murder and his alibi blows up in court, he squeals that West was the killer. West is convicted of the murder after he offers no defense, but the hot-headed Gabby hates rats and knifes Fallon to death as he’s being transported to prison. Before Fallon dies, he clears West of the murder. Meanwhile Artbutny’s malfeasance is about to be detected and his reputation destroyed when his client brings her own bookkeepers to examine the books and he therefore contemplates suicide rather than being shamed as a thief. When Crystal’s husband returns from Canada and asks for a divorce so she can marry his Canadian sweetheart Janet (Marjorie Riordan), the vengeful Crystal not only refuses to grant him a divorce but poisons his name to a gullible Janet and his superior (Lumsden Hare)–denying him a promotion and causing Janet to return to Canada alone.

When the three partners find out they have a horse entering the Grand National Race and their horse wins, they become unglued by stupidity, distrust and anger. It leads to an unplanned act of rage murder of one of the winning ticket holders by another ticket holder. Thereby nobody can cash the winning ticket without being accused of the murder, as they need the victim’s signature in order to collect the prize. The innocent West, of both murders, tries to wash his sorrows away with drink, and finds he has a loyal girlfriend in Icy Crane (Joan Lorring). She left Fallon for West during the trial because he treats her so nice.

The pic has an engaging atmospheric noir look, and passes as a lesser version of The Maltese Falcon (1941). But it’s hard to believe that in reality it was a precursor to The Maltese Falcon. Huston had written the story as early as 1936. Interestingly Lorre, Negulesco’s favorite actor, has a romance in the film and is not the film’s heavy as he usually would be.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”