Thursday, 19 June 2014

"Three Strangers"


"Three Strangers" is a 1946 film released by Warner Brothers.  It stars Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Geraldine Fitzgerald.  It was directed by Jean Negulesco from a script by -get this- John Huston and Howard Koch.

The first thing I will mention is that this film is in colour- the first such movie I've written about here.  And a lot stands out- including eye-popping femme outfits.  (I assume that this is intended to get the same effect that ostentatiously designed outfits usually achieve for femmes.  Honestly, sparkly (and weird) dame dresses are possibly my least favourite thing about the noir aesthetic.)

The premise of the movie is simple.  Three characters are brought together- the titular "Three Strangers"- and they make a bet on a horse race.  They could all use the money, for various reasons.  They then return to their various lives, which are full of drama and heartbreak, and we see how those lives play out.

Peter Lorre's Johnny West is one of the three strangers and arguably the one the film features most heavily. He's not the sort of creepy weirdo he is in films like the Maltese Falcon.  Instead, though he has his trademark manner, he seems to be noble hearted, a victim to his chosen vice of alcohol perhaps, but full of goodness in a world that seems to be ruled by cold hard cash and those that have enough of it.  He's easily my favourite character, always ready with a quip or wise proverb.

Geraldine Fitzgerald's Crystal Shackleford is almost Shakespearian in the forces that are arrayed against her and the ways she tries to deal with them.  I would call her the protagonist, as it is her actions that kickstart the plot.

Sydney Greenstreet's character, Jerome Arbutny, is the third stranger.  Like in the Maltese Falcon, he plays a rich old fat guy.  At first, he wants the money so he can be a respected barrister, soon complications develop.  His civilized appearance belies the hypocrisy and greed that is at the heart of his character.

The setting is London in 1938, which looks different from how I might have pictured the thirties. There are neon signs all over this metropolis, for starters. The movie opens on bustling crowds, and Crystal stands out from them immediately in her daring pink scarf, soon revealing a daring pink outfit.  In fact, the femmes of this film all wear boldly coloured outfits, as I talked about above.

The movie has elements of mysticism.  When the characters make a wish on the mysterious idol, there are eerie winds and other spooky happenings that make the initially skeptical characters take the supernatural elements seriously.  These mystical elements are enhanced by the cuts between scenes, which are foggy dissolves.

Supporting characters are memorable.  Peter Lorre's character is part of a criminal gang, which includes his love interest, the sort of puppydog whose been kicked around a few times, and a knife thrower who exudes the menace of an underclass man prone to violence. (He stands in sharp contrast to the "civilized" air that so many of the characters carry.) Crystal's husband is a smug gentleman trying to leave old paramours by the wayside. And the object of Jerome Arbutny's affections, lady Rhea Belladon, is very amusing.

I complained about a lack of classiness in the film "Born to Kill", and I think that was a little naive after seeing this film.  Sure, characters seem cooler when drinking whiskeys and sodas.  But the characters in positions of wealth and status are for the most part far more reprehensible than the less "civilized" in this film.  It's an important reminder that "civilization" can just be a veneer; cliche as it sounds, what matters is your soul.

This movie deals with two interrelated themes: fate and superstition.  If the gods are real, if their powers extend beyond the reasonable, the rational, the comprehensible, then they surely determine our fates- or so one would imagine. This film explores whether human freedom is possible in an incomprehensible universe.

Best Line: "We are but strangers on this moving globe. It's not for us to tarry long," delivered educationally by Peter Lorre.

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