Friday, December 27, 2013

Three Strangers (1946)

Director: Jean Negulesco                              Writers: John Huston & Howard Koch
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                          Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Alan Napier

Three Strangers is an extremely odd film by Warners, a John Huston project that came on the heels of the successful The Maltese Falcon and the not so successful Across the Pacific. In the end it’s more like a practice run for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While the film would have been great in a modern urban U.S. setting, Huston liked things more exotic and so this story was set in London prior to World War II. It’s an ensemble piece that also stands out because it had no real star. The biggest name in the picture was Sydney Greenstreet, but he certainly doesn’t carry the film. Geraldine Fitzgerald would have been the natural choice as lead, but it’s not really her story either. The film weaves three threads together, characters who are strangers and only meet through chance. But the result is that the story never comes together in a way that makes a unified whole and, despite solid performances, makes for a decidedly lesser John Huston film.

The film begins with Geraldine Fitzgerald leading Sydney Greenstreet along a street in London. When she invites him up to her room, he's quite happy with himself. That is, until he finds Peter Lorre already there. Her goal is to gather two other strangers in order to perform a Chinese ritual that will bring them all a fortune to divide between them. Greenstreet and Lorre go their own way afterward, without giving the episode much thought. Fitzgerald wants to get back with her estranged husband, Alan Napier, but he has already moved on and wants a divorce. Greenstreet, meanwhile, is a lawyer who has been syphoning money from a client's trust fund, and Lorre is mixed up in a murder, for which he acted as lookout while drunk and doesn't remember.

On their own, each of the stories could have made for an interesting film, but together they seem to detract from one another. There’s also the fact that both Greenstreet and Lorre are playing against type here and that gives an unsettling feel to the piece as well. Lorre is a lush who seemingly hasn’t a worry in the world, despite the fact that the police are looking for him. Meanwhile the usually cool Greenstreet positively sweats himself into a heart attack when his client becomes suspicious and asks to look over the books. Fitzgerald is the real star here, exhibiting a flair for the femme fatale role. Had this been the main thrust of the story it would have been much better. Instead, Huston spends far too much time on the Lorre plot, with stock characters and no real suspense at all. The film does end in true John Huston fashion, but the final scene is still something of a let down.

Director Jean Negulesco attempted to wed the three stories by using a bizarre transitional device of the wavering screen, something that usually indicates a dream or the passage of time and only adds to the strangeness of the film. Nevertheless, he was nominated for an Academy Award a couple of years later for Johnny Belinda. Huston was unable to direct as he was still serving in the Signal Corps when it was being filmed in 1945. The emphasis in the script on Lorre’s character only makes sense when the other actors considered for that role, Leslie Howard, Errol Flynn and Robert Montgomery, make it clear that it was actually intended to be a leading man role. Negulesco lobbied to get Lorre in the part, but in doing so it completely changed the complexion of the picture, to the film’s detriment. Huston had originally envisioned Humphrey Bogart in the part, with Greenstreet and Mary Astor from The Maltese Falcon making it a sort of informal sequel. As it stands, however, Three Strangers is little more than a curiosity, interesting for the novel use of the actors, but unsatisfying in its own right.

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