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On the eve of Chinese New Year, three strangers, all down on their luck, meet on a London street and strike up a mutual friendship. The unlikely trio - Crystal (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a jilted wife, Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet), a disreputable lawyer, and Johnny (Peter Lorre), a small-time crook - join together in a mutual investment - a lottery ticket - in order to change their luck. Good fortune is not in the cards, however, and the trio is undone by greed, paranoia and bad luck.
An atmospheric melodrama with film noir shadings, Three Strangers (1946) bears some similarities to a previous Warner Bros. production (The Maltese Falcon, 1941), particularly in its focus on a statuette (a bust of the Chinese idol Kwan Yin) that sets the plot in motion. It also reunites Falcon cast members Greenstreet and Lorre, the two resident studio "heavies" at that time. Yet, despite the film's somewhat derivative nature, it was actually a precursor to The Maltese Falcon.
John Huston originally came up with the Three Strangers storyline in 1936 when he worked briefly for the film company Gaumont-British in London. According to his autobiography, An Open Book, the idea for the film was inspired by a wooden figure (possibly from Burma) he had purchased in a British antique shop. At a social gathering at his London flat, the exotic carving took on greater significance: "Somebody present had a sheet of Irish Sweepstakes tickets, and it was proposed that we sign with a pseudonym. "Burmese" sounded like a good pseudonym to me, so I took some tickets jointly and some singly, and signed them "Burmese." "Burmese" put an idea into my head for story. Three strangers purchase a sweepstakes ticket and sign it using the name of a goddess. The ticket is drawn in the lottery but, meanwhile it has become a clue connecting one of the trio with murder. Thereafter the goddess sees to it that nobody gets anything but his just desserts. I told Angus MacPhail this notion and he liked it very much. There was a director there who had a penchant for this kind of material, so Angus had me tell him the story of Three Strangers. The director - whose name was Alfred Hitchcock - liked it also, but apparently the Balcon brothers did not, and that was the last I heard of it."
Huston returned to Hollywood shortly after his unrewarding stint in England and found work at Warner Bros. where he completed a screenplay of Three Strangers (based on his short story "Three Men and a Girl") with his friend Howard Koch (he would go on to co-write the screenplay for Casablanca, 1942); the two had met while Huston was performing in a London stage production of The Lonely Man, written by Koch.
Flash forward ten years and Warner Brothers is finally preparing to film Three Strangers but Huston, by now a well-regarded director, is unable to helm the project; his involvement in the war effort as a Signal Corps lieutenant prevents him from immediately returning to Hollywood so Jean Negulesco is hired instead. It was Huston's initial plan to star Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor as the unlucky trio but of the three only Greenstreet remained attached to the project. Nevertheless, Geraldine Fitzgerald is outstanding as the ill-fated Crystal and Lorre, in one of his few non-villainous roles, is even allowed a romantic interest, a rarity in his screen career. As for Three Strangers, it mirrors themes and motifs - the roles of fate, self-awareness, and human weaknesses in a character's destiny - that would recur throughout Huston's work from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to Prizzi's Honor (1985) and is essential viewing for fans of his work.
Producer: Wolfgang Reinhardt
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: John Huston, Howard Koch
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: George J. Amy
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Sydney Greenstreet (Jerome K. Arbutny), Peter Lorre (Johnny West), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Crystal Shackleford), Joan Lorring (Icey), Robert Shayne (Fallon), Marjorie Riordan (Janet).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford