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24 October 2014

Three Strangers, starring Peter Lorre, Romantic

Peter Lorre as Mr Moto

Peter Lorre, born Laszlo Lowenstein in what is now Slovakia, is another example of art springing up merrily from nowhere. His father was a bookkeeper, and he spent his childhood in an ordinary middle class atmosphere. Needless to say, he got out of there as soon as humanly possible, and was acting professionally in Vienna by the age of 17.

This theater background was invaluable, allowing him to play many roles, hone his skills, and develop that wonderful voice. Soon he was working in the exciting experimental theatrical milieu of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill, and caught the eye of Fritz Lang, a young Viennese film director -- who was preparing his first sound film called simply "M"; he cast Lorre in the title role. That film, a dark thriller about a serial child murderer, was an international sensation, and Lorre gained instant recognition. By this time tensions were rising in Germany and Austria, and freethinkers of all kinds were being targeted by the Nazis; so, like so many writers, artists, scientists, and intellectuals, he left his homeland and made his way first to England, and then to America.

Peter Lorre in "M"

Hollywood beckoned at once. It was lucky that he was offered the Mr. Moto series for 20th Century Fox, giving him the chance to play a hero first thing. His Moto has the additional attraction of a sly sense of humor, which is rather lacking in the original stories. At the same time, he could play a curiously sympathetic psychopath in "Mad Love", or parody horror films in a Kay Kyser musical. His career really took off at Warner Brothers, though, starting with one of the great ensemble films of all time, "The Maltese Falcon." His faintly hysterical Joel Cairo is integral to the plot and of equal weight with the other characters. One of the many joys of watching this movie is seeing fine actors collaborating with others just as good. Every character is explored; every actor gets a chance.

With Bogart and Astor in the hunt for the black bird

Lorre's heyday as a movie actor -- or was he a star? -- was at Warner Brothers in the 40s, when several partnerships with Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart made him an instantly recognizable celebrity. He always sought varied roles. The range of characters a five-foot three man with prominent dark eyes and a pronounced German accent could portray is amazing. Mr. Moto, the sad, crazed doctor in "Mad Love", the desperate Ugarte in "Casablanca", the hilarious Dr. Einstein in "Arsenic and Old Lace", the watchmaker turned dedicated anti-Nazi guerrilla in "The Conspirators", another hilarious parody in "The Boogie Man Will Get You" (as a southern sheriff complete with frock coat and string tie), and many more.

But my favorite isn't so well known as these. It's an odd ensemble piece with no major stars, about rudderless people who affect each others lives. The title is "Three Strangers", and it takes place in a foggy, dream-like pre-war London, dark and mysterious. One night a beautiful, sophisticated woman (Geraldine Fitzgerald) plucks two randomly chosen men off the street to join her in the purchase of a sweepstakes ticket; she believes that a certain Chinese prophecy will ensure their winning. One of the men is an outwardly respectable barrister, played by Sydney Greenstreet. The other is Johnny West. an alcoholic, threadbare musician who has fallen very far from an aristocratic background, played by Lorre. The film tells three interlocking stories of these strangers.

Johnny is a sort of hanger-on to a local group of criminals. They tolerate him and buy him drinks, and he occasionally provides them with alibis. As the plot unfolds, he becomes a suspect in a crime he actually had nothing to do with -- but he was too drunk to remember this. He has to hide out, tended by  Icey, a young street girl who does errands for the gang, played by Joan Lorring. Slowly it becomes evident that Icey is in love with Johnny, which he has no idea of. But in one remarkable scene, she tells him.
Peter Whitney, Peter Lorre, and Joan Lorring

They are hiding under a bridge on the river, and, looking out across the water, with nothing to do but talk, Icey tells Johnny how she feels about him. Joan Lorring is lovely in this; as the scene is staged, she is facing the camera, and he is sitting behind her on a stack of debris. Lorre's face is in shadow as she speaks -- but you can see him breathe, and you see his breath quicken as he realizes what she's saying. Now, that's acting.

This movie has quite a complex plot, but thanks to the script by John Huston and Howard Koch, and Jean Negulesco's direction, you know what's going on. No one is really what they seem to be; respectable people turn out to be criminals, and some criminals are quite good in the end. Negulesco's films have an elegant pace, not too slow but never frenetic, and I like nearly all of them -- The Mask of Dimitrios, Humoresque, the Clifton Webb-Barbara Stanwyck Titanic, Daddy Long Legs, Three Coins in the Fountain. Now that I think of it, he's directed some other pretty unusual romantic pairings.

Because that's one of the reasons I love Three Strangers -- Johnny West is the romantic lead, something I don't think Peter Lorre ever did before or after this. True, instead of swank nightclubs and ritzy apartments, Lorre and Lorring have to do their romancing in cheap hotels and waterfront dives,  but love is love.

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