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19 April 2017

Outsider Love: Peter Lorre in Three Strangers


The three strangers -- Crystal, Johnny, and Mr. Arbutny
I’ve always loved Warner Brothers’ films noir from the forties, and I do mean always. Local television stations where I grew up all had extensive “old movie” programming, and one station in particular was heavily dependent on Warner Brothers' forties catalog. I don’t even remember the first time I saw The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, or Mildred Pierce, now considered classic noir films.
I was always particularly fascinated by the exotic strain of noir, a sub-genre which carried an air of foreign sophistication and mystery; all  the studios had them, titles like Ministry of Fear, Tomorrow Is Forever, The Conspirators, and The Mask of Dimitrios. My favorite of this type is Three Strangers, a movie from 1946 unusual even in this company. For one thing, the top stars, the names above the title, are Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Peter Lorre. Greenstreet's first film, incredibly, was The Maltese Falcon, And for the first and only time, Peter Lorre is the romantic lead.
The crafty, intricate screenplay is by John Huston, who was apparently an instinctive dramatist, as his very first screenplays are multi-layered and meaningful, and the expert journeyman Howard Koch, a writer who could make anything work. The film is set, costumed, decorated, and lit with the incomparable skill of Warner's technical departments, with velvety black shadows and ethereal mist, and directed by the underrated Jean Negulesco.

Crystal gives Mr. Arbutny the wrong idea
As the title indicates, the plot follows three very different people whose paths cross by chance. Set in a fantastic, foggy, pre-war London,  it opens with a pretty risque scene where a lovely, elegant woman, Crystal Shackleford (Fitzgerald), lures Mr. Arbutny (Greenstreet) into following her up to her flat by appearing to be a rather classy prostitute on the prowl — there’s no other way to put it. But when he gets there and sees another man, Johnny West (Lorre), awaiting her return, he’s ready to turn right around and leave. As it turns out, the lady has invited both of them there for a very different purpose than they have imagined.

Johnny -- a cultured gentleman with a liking for booze
First, she requests that they remain anonymous — three strangers. Then she explains that she has a scheme to bring them all a great deal of money by strictly legal means — with the assistance of the Chinese Goddess of Fortune, Kwan-Yin, who she worships. A legend (totally made up for the movie) says that if three strangers share exactly the same wish at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the goddess will grant the wish. They decide to share an Irish Sweepstakes ticket equally — if their horse wins it will be worth tens of thousands of pounds. (The Irish Sweepstakes was a famous high-stakes lottery where you first purchased a numbered ticket, then that ticket was assigned to a horse running in the race; if your horse won, you collected the money everyone else had purchased their tickets with. This started in 1930 and ended in 1986.) All three agree to share, sign the ticket, and go their separate ways until the race is run several months later.

Now we follow the three strangers, each with their own separate story. Their desires seem to be simple. Mr. Arbutny is a middle-class lawyer who yearns to be granted membership to an exclusive club. We soon discover that in order to maintain the lifestyle expected of a high-class clubman he has been embezzling from the estate of one of his clients, a middle aged widow who communicates regularly with her dead husband by means of seances. Crystal Shackleford’s whole life is motivated by an obsessional love for her estranged husband, and a ruthless determination to get him back.

Johnny West is the alcoholic, ne’er-do-well son of an aristocratic family, now essentially living on the streets. He has somehow fallen in with a network of criminals who recently perpetrated a robbery gone wrong; the gang leader, Fallon, killed a policeman during the crime, and this was apparently witnessed by Johnny, who was acting as lookout, and a thug named Gabby (a striking performance by Peter Whitney). Fallon is on trial for murder, and Gabby and Johnny have been ordered to remain in hiding so they can’t be called to testify — or make a deal; as Gabby confidently informs Johnny, when there are three people involved in a crime, the police always induce two of them to turn on the third. Johnny was too drunk to actually remember what happened, but he accepts this. But when Gabby leaves him alone in their hideout, Johnny wanders out in search of alcohol. That’s when he encounters Crystal and Mr. Arbutny.

On leaving Crystal’s flat, Johnny heads for the nearest pub and starts drinking again. That’s when Icey, the young girl who acts as messenger and go-between with Fallon and his gang, finds him. She kindly promises Johnny all the gin he wants if he’ll stay undercover.
When Johnny returns to the cheap rented room where he and Gabby have been hiding out, it becomes apparent that their landlady suspects something, and they hurriedly leave their room behind and end up taking temporary refuge beneath one of London’s many bridges.
And there, in the dark, shadowy refuge next to the water, unfolds a beautiful scene which is why I love this movie so much. Icey, played by Joan Lorring, a wonderful actress who was underused in Hollywood, is left alone with Johnny.
"I'd hurt you more than anyone," Johnny tells Icey
Maybe this shouldn't be a surprise, because what is Lorre’s Johnny but a classic romantic hero? He has all the traditional traits. He disdains convention and “normal” life, he is cut off from his birthright and proper class role, he is emotionally damaged and also physically handicapped by the effects of his drinking, but he maintains some standards of ethical behavior even though he is surrounded by the dregs of society. To Icey, a rootless street urchin left to fend for herself and kicked around by anyone and everyone, Johnny seems like a knight in shining armor, and, to his utter shock, she tells him so. They are sitting on some abandoned furniture beneath the bridge, and as they talk Johnny strokes her hair absently, as if she were a pet. But what she has to say jolts him awake.
“I’m going to stick with you, Johnny,” she says, “I’m going to look after you.”
“What?” he says, dismayed.
“Wherever you go, that’s where I’m going, too.”
“What are you saying?”
“You see, nobody’s ever treated me the way you treat me,” she explains. “Johnny, I’ve been knocked about ever since I was a kid. I can’t remember anything else. I just thought that was the way people, acted, that’s all. You make me feel like I was somebody…”
“I’d hurt you more than anyone,” he says sadly.
“You couldn’t hurt a soul, Johnny; you can’t even hate anyone,” she replies, looking up at him, her eyes shining. Johnny doesn’t speak through this speech — but you can see his breathing quicken with emotion as for the first time in years he faces the possibility that his life may not be entirely without hope, after all.
Johnny discovers hope in his future
People who worked with Lorre, both in films and on radio, said that’s how he was -- totally committed, totally in the scene with complete concentration. All he does here is listen; but you can see every word Icey speaks go straight to Johnny’s heart. He shows you how he feels without words, and his face wears an expression of great tenderness.

But they can’t stay under the bridge forever. They know the police are looking for two men — Icey has arranged for them to pick up a car and they can drive to Scotland, where they’re not known. Johnny thinks he won’t be spotted if he goes alone, and meets up with Gabby and Icey later. Suddenly he’s a lot more focused. In fact, he’s sober, for the first time in weeks — perhaps months.
After picking up the car, and waiting for the others, a flower seller on the street offers Johnny some violets.
”Make your wife happy, it will,” she says.
“I haven’t got a wife, and if I had one, a bunch of violets wouldn’t make her happy,” he replies, in his old, cynical manner. The flower seller moves off into the pub nearby. Then Johnny follows her inside.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he says, “I think it would make her happy.”

Violets for Icey

He takes the violets, and leans on the bar, but doesn’t order anything. The barman leans over and warns him that there’s a detective next to him.
The detective strikes up a conversation and offers to buy Johnny a drink, which he refuses — he promised Gabby and Icey he wouldn’t drink until they get away. But it’s no use — he’s been recognized, and the detective takes him in “for questioning.” As they pass by the car, Johnny tosses the violets in, and says loudly, so Gabby and Icey can hear,
“Inspector, I guess where I’m going I won’t need these.”

As they disappear down the street, Icey rushes to the car and finds the bunch of violets. To Icey and Gabby's despair and fury, Flllon has fingered Johnny for the crime he was accused of -- he has agreed to plead guilty to the robbery only in exchange for testifying against Johnny.

A few weeks pass. Crystal has tried without success to convince her estranged husband (Alan Napier) to return to her, but their meetings end in bitter quarrels. He has returned from a diplomatic posting in Canada specifically to get a divorce, for he has fallen in love with a young girl there, Janet Elliott (Marjorie Riordan), and she has accompanied him on the trip to England.

It becomes obvious that Crystal is not just obsessed with her husband -- she's become unhinged. Unable to hide her rage when he asks for a divorce, Crystal screams at him, "I'll never give you a divorce, never! You belong to me!"
Shackleford storms out. Fitzgerald's Crystal is completely self-absorbed, a beautiful, glamorous woman with no feeling for anyone. Her next ploy is to surreptitiously visit the innocent young woman her husband loves, who would never imagine anyone would lie about such things, and convince her that she and Shackleford have resumed a sexual relationship, and that she is now pregnant. Janet packs up and leaves, and Crystal smiles in triumph.

Crystal lies to Janet

Mr. Arbutny has hit on the idea of proposing marriage to his wealthy, widowed client, Lady Rhea (Rosiland Ivan) and thus have his embezzlement remain undiscovered. But this takes a drastically wrong turn when the lady insists on consulting her dead husband, via a seance; unfortunately for Mr. Arbutny, the deceased gentleman is outraged, and not only forbids the marriage but insists on an audit of the books. (The deceased gentleman is no dummy, obviously.) Lady Rhea arrives at Mr. Arbutny’s office with an accountant the next day. Mr. Arbutny is shattered. He can only think of one chance -- the sweepstakes ticket. Because the horse on their ticket has turned out to be the favorite to win. Mr. Arbutny knows that he can save himself by selling his one-third share for thousands of pounds, without waiting for the race to be run.
Gabby sees Johnny go free

Johnny has been arrested, tried, and convicted of murder on Fallon's word, though Johnny still does not recall anything of the event. He's in prison awaiting execution, though Icey begs the prosecutors to believe her statement that she perjured herself supporting Fallon, to no avail. However, after Fallon is convicted of robbery and sent by train to a northern prison, Gabby sneaks aboard, corners Fallon, and stabs him. Fallon, in a deathbed statement, exonerates Johnny completely, and Johnny is suddenly a free man; his troubles are over. Except that Gabby is now in prison for murdering Fallon -- but they do have a chance to say goodbye. And Icey has been jailed for perjury. Strolling aimlessly through the park, trying to get used to his freedom, Johnny discovers that the sweepstakes ticket with his name on it is for the favorite, and today is the day the race will be run. He hurries over to Crystal Shackleford's flat.
A taste of freedom

This is what Mr, Arbutny has done, too; when Johnny arrives, he is desperately trying to convince Crystal to give him the ticket so he can sell it immediately, for if their horse runs the race and loses, it will be worth nothing. She flatly refuses, with more and more anger, and laughs spitefully when he explodes, saying his whole life will be destroyed. Johnny arrives and says pacifically that as far as he is concerned, Mr. Arbutny can have the ticket now, but Crystal still refuses.

Here something should be said about Sydney Greenstreet's wonderful performance; like Charles Laughton and indeed Lorre, Greenstreet was somehow able to make use of a very distinctive physique and unmistakeable voice to create an amazing variety of characters. Mr. Arbutny is not an admirable or sympathetic person, on paper; his life is not threatened by his crime, and if it were discovered he wouldn't face a capital charge. But his obsession with status and position is what destroys him, and somehow you feel sorry for him. Mr. Arbutny becomes is so overwhelmed by the loss of everything he values, and so distraught, that he actually struggles with Crystal for the ticket, and accidentally strikes her with the statue of Kwan Yin. She falls and hits her head -- and dies.

After a moment of shock, Johnny takes charge, earnestly persuading Mr. Arbutny to leave the building, saying that they could both be suspected of murder. Mr. Arbutny seems dazed, but follows him out. Once on the street, however, he becomes more and more distracted, until he starts to mutter and then shout that he has seen the devil, and much more to that effect. Mr. Arbutny has lost his wits.The police are called, and since there's nothing he can do, Johnny slips away.

Next we see Johnny sitting alone at a table in a pub. Suddenly Icey comes in -- she has been set free, since what she told the police about Fallon's guilt was true, after all. She rushes to embrace Johnny and they sit together. He makes a joke about the sweepstakes ticket, which he has suddenly discovered in his pocket. But he knows he can never cash it in, because Crystal's name is on it -- and he doesn't think a connection with an apparently murdered woman would be good for his health. So he burns the ticket to ashes, laughing with Icey, for whom the sky is blue for practically the first time in her life.



Original theatrical trailer: Three Strangers 

Making the agreement: Three Strangers