Three Strangers is the kind of offbeat little movie that could only have been made in Hollywood in the 40s. It’s part film noir, part melodrama and part fantasy. And perhaps part fairy tale as well.
This 1940s Warner Brothers feature was directed by Jean Negulesco from a script co-written by John Huston. Since it involves a statue with possibly mystic but definitely mythic qualities and given the Huston connection it often gets compared to The Maltese Falcon. In fact it’s a very different type of movie.
In London in 1938 an elegant woman makes eye contact with a man on a crowded street. The man (played by Sydney Greenstreet) appears to a prosperous businessman of some sort. He follows her back to her flat. He presumably thinks she’s a high-class prostitute so he’s a little disconcerted when they reach the flat to find another man already there. The woman (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald) has a proposition for both men although it’s perhaps not what they were expecting.
The woman (her name is Crystal) has a statue of a Chinese goddess and she explains to them the legend that if on the eve of Chinese New Year three strangers make a wish the goddess will grant that wish. And tonight is the the eve of Chinese New Year. There’s one catch though. The three strangers must all make the same wish. What wish could three complete strangers have in common? The answer of course is money.
All three are, in various ways, in a jam. They are victims of fate. Or at least they think they’re victims of fate. Perhaps they’re victims of fatalism rather than fate, and perhaps that’s more deadly. All three believe that money would help to extricate themselves from their respective jams.
We soon discover that these three people are a good deal less respectable than they appeared to be. They are good at maintaining a facade but not so good at keeping their lives together.
Crystal is estranged from her husband. He has now returned from Canada but instead of asking her for a reconciliation (as she had convinced herself he was going to) he asks for a divorce. He has fallen in love with another woman. But Crystal has no intention of letting him go - she knows they’re destined to be together. She will pay any price to keep him, and use any methods no matter how ruthless, no matter how cruel.
Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is a solicitor of impeccable and unblemished reputation. He is most certainly not a thief. After all it’s not stealing if you intend to pay the money back. So he didn’t really steal from a client’s trust account, in fact he was acting in the client’s best interests, if only that speculative share deal hadn’t gone sour. And it’s not as if he were acting irresponsibly - his sources had told him it as a sure thing.
Johnny West (Peter Lorre) has several weaknesses, the main one being booze. It’s not that he’s a nasty drunk. Not in the least. He’s really a very nice fellow, drunk or sober. But after a few drinks his judgment isn’t all it might be, and in any case he’s the sort of guy who allows fate to lead him where it will. Where it’s led him is into the middle of a murder case.
Arbutny’s need for money is direct. If he doesn’t have it quickly he is ruined. Crystal sees money as something that will strengthen her position with he husband, and if you’re a manipulative sort of person money always has its uses.
Johnny perhaps has less need of money than the other two, although money would be useful for buying alcohol and it would also allow him to provide for the young woman who is also mixed up in the murder case. Somewhat to his surprise he has discovered that the young lady in question is in love with him, and even more to his surprise he discovers that maybe his existence might have a purpose after all. While Johnny is a reckless but innocent chap caught up almost by accident in crime his girlfriend is an habitual criminal, but then she’s never met a man before who treated her decently and she’s not really bad.
So we have a series of characters all believing a bit too much in fate, and not really willing to break the cycle of fatalism. Can a winning sweepstakes ticket save them, or can they find something else of more value?
The plot is of course totally contrived, but it’s intended to be. This is an urban fairy tale and it doesn’t need to obey the tiresome rules of real life. The plot is unimportant - it’s what the characters can find within themselves that matters. And it works rather nicely. Of course it’s almost impossible to go wrong when you have Lorre and Greenstreet in the same movie. All three leads in fact are excellent, and Joan Lorring is equally good as Lorre’s sweet but none-too-honest girlfriend.
This is a fine example of 1940s Hollywood film-making at its best, a movie that provides a good deal of entertainment and touches some emotional chords as well. They really don’t make quirky movies like this any more, and more’s the pity.