Three Strangers (Warner Bros., 1946) directed by Jean Negulesco
Three Strangers is an unconventional noir containing a supernatural element that may be insignificant or could hold the key to the entire film. Many people who see the picture disagree on how large a role the supernatural element plays, and that’s okay. But most viewers recognize that the strength of the film comes from not only from the three strangers as a group, but from their individual storylines, all of which contain noir connections leading to a surprising conclusion.
A mysterious woman named Crystal Shackelford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) convinces the rotund, well-dressed attorney Jerome Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) to follow her to her apartment, but not for the reason you’re probably thinking. Upon arrival, Arbutny is surprised to find another man already there, making himself comfortable in the apartment, a charming drunk named Johnny West (Peter Lorre, in one of his most overlooked roles). Although I’ve just told you who they are, Crystal stipulates that no names are to be shared until after midnight. Her plan: If three strangers agree on the same wish on the eve of the Chinese New Year and tell it to Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of fortune and destiny, their wish will be granted.
What’s the only thing that everyone can agree on? Money, of course. Each character has their own ideas for how the money will be spent: Crystal, to win back her husband (Alan Napier); Arbutny, for entry into the prestigious Barrister’s Club. Johnny’s desire is a simple one: the purchase a local bar where he can live.
Once the deed is done, the names revealed, and details worked out, the three go their separate ways. I remember seeing this as a teenager (many years ago), thinking that the best part of the film was this opening scene, but the most fascinating aspects of the film are yet to come. Although Kwan Yin appears to have smiled upon the trio, their individual stories say otherwise.
Crystal’s husband returns, but it’s not the happy reunion she’d hoped for.
Johnny, an accomplice in a failed robbery attempt, should be hiding out, not showing up at his favorite bar, and certainly not visiting a strange woman’s apartment.
And Arbutny finds himself in trouble after several unwise stock investments and an attempt to fleece a wealthy client (Rosalind Ivan). Each of these stories contain layers and characters who could’ve starred in their own movies. All of these performances are superb, and the supporting cast (Napier, Ivan, Joan Lorring, Robert Shayne, and others) are a delight.
The picture has an interesting history, including some interesting connections to The Maltese Falcon (1941) besides the obvious one (Greenstreet and Lorre), which you can discover from Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley intro and outro from from last summer. Muller also talks about an actress I want to learn more about, Geraldine Fitzgerald, whose beauty (and the outfit she wears in the opening scene) is absolutely intoxicating. Who couldn’t fall in love with her?
Although I have the old Warner DVD, the easiest way to watch Three Strangers may be streaming (currently a $3 rental from Amazon, AppleTV, or Microsoft). I hope you’ll seek it out.