Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Three Strangers

I've mentioned any number of anthology movies, and movies will all-star casts and intertwining stories. A movie that combines elements of the two is Three Strangers.

Geraldine Fitzgerald plays Crystal Shackleford, a woman living in London in 1938. (The film was released in 1946, but was presumably set before the war so as not to deal with it and its aftermath, and because the original story was conceived in the late 1930s.) It's Chinese New Year, and she goes out on the street looking for a stranger, which she finds in the form of Jerome Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet). She takes him back to her flat, where it turns out there's another stranger, Johnny West (Peter Lorre). Crystal brought the two men there because of a superstition. She's got a statue of a Chinese idol, and legend has it that if three strangers all make the same wish in front of it at midnight on Chinese New Year's, that wish will come true. Johnny has an Irish Sweepstakes lottery ticket, so the other two buy a one-third share and then they wish for the ticket to win.

If the ticket does win, each of them will come into £2,000, which was quite the sum back in 1938. And each of them needs the money. Crystal's estranged husband David (Alan Napier) is in Canada, and if Crystal can show she's got some independent money of her own, she thinks she can win him back. Jerome is a solicitor who would like to become a barrister, but there's a character exam, and right now there's no way Jerome can pass it. He's been embezzling a client's money to speculate on the stock market, and the £2,000 would cover the money he embezzled. As for Johnny, he's got some legal issues.

And so the movie goes back and forth between the three stories. Johnny is trying to stay one step ahead of the law: he's been implicated in a murder committed while he was too drunk to remember what really happened, and he and another witness are in hiding. That money could get him out of the country. But the one who needs the money right now is Jerome, and he becomes increasingly desirous of selling off the ticket after it's picked but before the race.

Three Strangers is a movie with an interesting idea, but one that I found had a big flaw for me. An idea like this is something that could work well as a traditional anthology movie, along the lines of If I Had a Million. Having the movie be an anthology with discrete stories would also help since none of the main characters knows each other. In, say, Phone Call From a Stranger, the characters spend the first half of the movie getting to know each other, but the susperstition is expressly supposed to disallow that here. And the stories really don't intertwine the way the plots of Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight do. Something like The VIPs had all the strangers be trapped (more or less) together for a night, like the later disaster movies, so a device like that can also make the disparate stories work.

Three Strangers, however, has nothing like that. It goes back and forth between plot lines the way that a Dinner at Eight does, except that none of the characters ever winds up becoming part of another character's story in a way that would make the movie come together as a coherent whole. Which is why, I think, the movie really needed to be written as a traditional anthology. Each of the three strangers could talk in flashback about what happened that makes them need the money now, although again the constriction on the strangers being supposed to not know each other makes that difficult, too.

All in all, there's a fair bit to recommend about Three Strangers, especially the performances from the three leads. But there was something about the script that left me wanting something different.

Three Strangers is available on DVD from the Warner Archive collection.

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