Monday, June 24, 2013

DVD Review: Three Strangers (1946)

Three Strangers (1946)

 Released August 14, 2012 by the Warner Archive Collection

Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Summary:  "Don't ever get mixed up with a Chinese goddess. That's the worst thing you can do." – Johnny West (Peter Lorre), not exactly making “idol” chatter, from “Three Strangers”. 
Say, I come off PRETTY GOOD... by comparison, that is!

And, how often is it that Peter Lorre’s character is the least shady of the principals in a film?  Sure, he’s a drunken petty thief, but deep down, he’s not nearly as bad as the company he keeps. 

That company, otherwise known as the other two of our titular “Three Strangers” are a spurned, scheming spouse (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and a shady solicitor (Sydney Greenstreet), each of whom inhabit separate and unique dark corners of 1938 London.  
Three Strangers -- and the Idol, near Greenstreet's head!

Ah, but let’s cut to the omniscient and philosophical ROLLING SCROLL OF TEXT, superimposed over the image of the aforementioned “Chinese goddess” that opens the film: 

It has always been man’s nature to invent idols, on whom he could place the responsibility for his own actions.  Perhaps these three strangers in this story, whose lives have really nothing to do with each other, would never have met except for a very ancient idol: the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin.

And perhaps their separate stories might have been different, except for what happened that night.  And, then again, perhaps not.” 

On with the story…

Fitzgerald’s “Crystal Shackleford” leads random stranger “Jerome K. Arbutny” (Greenstreet) to her ornate but mysterious London flat (made all the more so by the proliferation of candles and the dominant presence of the idol in the living room), where we also meet the third stranger Lorre’s “Johnny West”. 

Insisting the three remain anonymous, she puts forth a peculiar proposition:

The reason that I brought you up here was to meet Kwan Yin.  She’s a very ancient personage – the goddess of fortune and destiny – of life and death.  She was given to me when my husband and I were in the Orient. 

There’s a legend that, on Chinese New Year [Joe’s Note: Not so coincidently, mere minutes away, at the upcoming “Big Ben Chime” of midnight], Kwan Yin will open her eyes, and her heart, to THREE STRANGERS.  This happens to be the night!” 
Tonight is THE night, Boys!

And, as Big Ben lets loose with his “vocal cameo”, a startlingly mysterious noir-ish gust of wind blows out the candles – but not before Crystal (but not open-minded Johnny and disbelieving Arbutny) catches a glimpse of the idol’s previously-shut eyes slightly opened and the hint of a “smile” on her otherwise inscrutable face.  Indeed, “Freeze Frame” appears to verify this phenomenon, though it’s photographed very quickly and not with any great degree of clarity.

I KNOW I saw it!  I KNOW...

When calm, and the lights, are restored, the three strangers, per the legend, jointly wish to win a sweepstakes ticket that must be bet on a high-stakes horse race [Joe’s Note: Yeah, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work either – but I never lived in 1938 London and made wishes to an ancient idol, with two other folks I didn’t know!]  To that end, they sign a pledge to divide the prize in equal shares, should the horse pay off.  Money being the one “common denominator” that they believe will solve their respective ills.  

Kwan Yin - with Director's Credit!  Ya think his wish was for an Oscar?

From that point on, the Three Strangers (Try Googling this title and not come up with “The Three Stooges!) live their separate stories – from about 15:05 thru 01:20:51 of this 01:32:40 film. 

Quite frankly, this very large part of the movie tends to drag, because the individual stories, while suitably melodramatic, are not nearly as interesting as the more eerie parts where the Strangers interact together. 

Crystal goes through desperate and often underhanded machinations to regain separated husband David (Alan Napier), who has a new love and wants a new life. 

Johnny is falsely charged with murder, while merely acting as a lookout for big time robber and crime boss “Bertram Fallon” (Robert Shayne).   

Arbutny’s embezzlements catch up with him, forcing him to drastic measures – including proposing to a wealthy and eccentric client widow, who routinely sees the ghost of her dead husband. 
Three Strangers -- Three Stories... It figures!

But, during the final 10-12 minute period of 01:20:51 thru 01:32:40, the film explodes into action that will justify your hanging in there.  Not that ANY time spent with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet isn’t time well cinematically-spent, mind you! 

No spoilers, but only one of the Three Strangers comes out of this even reasonably well.   Exactly what one would look for in a Golden Age Warner Bros. film noir. 

“The Maltese Falcon”, it’s not.  But, despite WB’s somewhat misguided (but understandable) efforts to associate it with that all-time classic of filmdom, “Three Strangers” is a worthwhile experience in its own right. 
Just because it's not The Falcon, is no reason to give it The Bird!

The three principals are superb – with both Lorre and Greenstreet performing up to their iconic status. 

Fans of “DC Comics properties translated to the small screen” will also enjoy the appearances of Alan Napier (“Alfred” on the ‘60s BATMAN TV series) and Robert Shayne (“Inspector Henderson” of the ‘50s classic THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN).  
The "DC Duo" of Alfred and Inspector Henderson.
And there’s even a little something for STAR TREK TOS fans, with diminutive but distinguished actor Ian Wolfe (“Bread and Circuses and “All Our Yesterdays”) in the minor and uncredited role of “Gillkie the Solicitor”. 

“Three Strangers” is a release of “The Warner Archive Collection”.  Please GO HERE to read more about this enterprise from Warner Home Entertainment.   

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.  


It’s Warner Archives:   Generally, as barebones a product as can be.  No Extra Features that have become such a vital part of the DVD experience, beyond a lone theatrical trailer.  No subtitles, commentaries, etc.  See most of my previous Warner Archive product reviews for the standard list of items lacking. 


It’s Warner Archives:  That means we get a film that would probably not garner sufficient support for a general release.  Some very deserving and enjoyable films have been released through the Warner Archive Collection Program and, despite any CONS, I’m pleased to have them! 

Indeed, a Golden Age film starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet – without the headlining star power of Humphrey Bogart – would seem to be exactly what The Warner Archie Collection was MADE FOR! 

Robo-Promos:  The once-standard “Warner Archive Collection” Robo-Promo, seen on most earlier WAC releases, appears to have been eliminated.  

Warnings: The overabundance of Warnings, present on standard Warner commercial releases, in more languages than most consumers could EVER comprehend, has not manifested itself on Warner Archive Collection product.  Just curious… Are they less concerned over people burning unauthorized copies of Warner Archive product, than standard Warner releases?    

Chapter Skips:  Warner Archive product is almost schizophrenic in its handling of Chapter Skips.  In its earliest releases, Chapter Skips were set at fixed “ten-minute intervals”, without regard to where that would place you logically within the film, when selecting such an advance. 

Later releases exhibited Chapter Skips that would work more logically with the film – see the Bogart film “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947).   Yet, the fixed “ten-minute chapters” would almost arbitrarily ALTERNATE with the more logical skips in some recent releases.  Happily, “Three Strangers” employs the logical, and film content-specific, chapter skips. 

The Old Dark Blue Warner Archives Menu
Menu (Singular):  In its more recent releases, Warner Archives has upgraded its “basic dark blue generic” menu graphics (and sometimes even employs individually designed menus for certain releases).  Here, we have the “compromise” of a building called the “Warner Bros. Theatre” at left and an image of the DVD package for “Three Strangers” at right.   That image is oft-used for other WAC releases, with the inset of the DVD package changing to suit the product. 
The Warner Bros. Theatre Menu -- with some other DVD.
The Disc Itself:  Very unusual for a Warner Archives release, the disc for “Three Strangers” sports a nice image of Fitzgerald, Lorre, and Greenstreet, along with the “Three Strangers” title logo – not unlike a standard DVD release. 

The Extra Feature (Singular):  Theatrical Trailer for “Three Strangers” (01:59):  

Once upon a time, set against a mysterious black background, the apparently disembodied head of Sydney Greenstreet, intrigued us with the legend of “The Maltese Falcon”, to begin the trailer for that iconic film: 

Come closer!  I want to talk to you!  I’m going to tell you an astounding story!  The story of “The Maltese Falcon”!

For six hundred years, the Falcon has carried the mystery of a FABULOUS WEALTH under its grotesque wings!  I could tell you a thousand tales of the men and women who have hunted this evil bird, but every story had the same ending – MURDER!  Listen to these incredible people, all consumed by their passionate GREED for “The Maltese Falcon”…

And so, buoyed by the legendary success of “The Maltese Falcon”, we find Mr. Greenstreet in a similar situation, primed to pique our interest in “Three Strangers”:

Same Sid-Head, Sans Body: "Come closer!  I'm going to tell you ANOTHER story!"  

Astounding!  Fantastic!  The fabulous tale of Kwan Yin, mysterious goddess of the Orient, behind whose inscrutable mask lies a secret of enormous wealth! 

This evil idol, [for which] desperate men and women have stained the centuries with MURDER!  But, only three have ever looked behind her grotesque mask – Three Strangers!  Three dangerous, incredible people, drawn together by their GREED!  Each ready to kill for the riches of Kwan Yin! 

JOE’S NOTE:  Aw, c’mon, Warners!  Clearly the same copywriter fashioned both Greenstreet hype-monologues – pretty much using the same words (configured differently) each time!  (Sniff! Sniff!  I’m almost PROUD of those guys!  As a would-be writer, I wish it was ME!)
Trailer narration is becoming habitual!

Finally, in an amazing instance of continuity among movie trailers, Sydney Greenstreet introduces the trailer for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film Conflict (which preceded “Three Strangers”, and in which Greenstreet co-stars) and ALSO indulges in the “Disembodied Greenstreet Head Narration” technique!  …But, enough about disembodied-Sid-heads!  Back to “Three Strangers”.

Your money, or MY life!

The trailer continues with a clip of a desperate Greenstreet:  I warn you!  MONEY means more to me than MY LIFE!  It means more to me than YOUR LIFE – and ALL our lives!”  [Joe’s Note: …Um, Sid?  Without a LIFE, exactly what would you do with the dough?  …Just askin’.]

ON-SCREEN TEXT: It’s another triumph of terror by the Masters of Mystery – THREE STRANGERS -- Sydney Greenstreet (“The Fat Man”), Peter Lorre (“The Little Man”), Geraldine Fitzgerald (“The Strange Woman”) – making EVERY KISS an invitation to disaster!”

[Joe’s Note:  KISS?  …With Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet?  EEEW!  At least she’s kissing Alan Napier in that trailer clip – but that’s almost as bad!  Then again, they DID say “disaster”, didn’t they?] 

TEXT CONTINUES: “It’s a desperate journey past mystic barriers – every flaming moment may be their last – THREE STRANGERS from Warner Bros., with all the thrills and threats of THE MALTESE FALCON!”  [Joe’s Note:  Now let’s not get carried away there, J.L.!]

And, gosh… didn’t I spend a lot of time on something that lasted less than two minutes! 

The Film: 

Hardly “The Maltese Falcon”, though it IS a nice little Noir film, with a great cast.  But, I’ve already said that! 
The Cast:

Geraldine Fitzgerald as “Crystal Shackleford”.  (Strange Woman!)

Peter Lorre as “Johnny West”.  (Strange Little Man!)

Sydney Greenstreet as “Jerome K. Arbutny”.  (Strange Big Man!) 

Alan Napier as “David Shackleford”.  (Es-Strange-ed Husband!)

Marjorie Riordan as “Janet Elliot”.  (Strange visitor from another continent, and David Shackleford’s new love interest!)

Joan Loring as “Icey Crane”.  (Loves Peter Lorre?  Strange!)

Peter Whitney as “Gabby”.  (Strange he hasn’t killed someone yet.  Oh, wait!)

Rosalind Ivan as “Lady Rhea Beladon”.  (Strange old rich woman, who sees strange ghosts!)

Robert Shayne as “Crime Boss Bertram Fallon”. (Strange to find “Inspector Henderson” on the wrong side of the law!)

Ian Wolfe as “Gillkie the Solicitor”.  (Strange to find him here at all!)

Overall:  Not “The Maltese Falcon”, no matter how much Warner Bros. tried to frame it as a “successor in interest”. 

Once you get past that, “Three Strangers” is a good film that perhaps delivers a little more in the way of melodrama, than adhere to its promise of high mystery.  But, don’t let that stop you!  The payoff is worth the wait! 

 “Three Strangers” was the middle-film of what appeared to be a Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet Post Maltese Falcon and Casablanca Trilogy – preceded by “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944) and followed by “The Verdict” (later in 1946).  Both are also released through The Warner Archive Collection.  I’ve not seen these other films at this writing, but “a view and a review” would seem to be only a matter of time. 

Aw, c'mon!  Ya know they're coming -- someday!
“Three Strangers” is recommended for fans of “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” – and anything else that featured Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, fans of the wonderful black and white world of Golden Age Hollywood noir and mystery, and the great ‘30s and ‘40s Warner Bros. motion picture machine in general. 

Give it extra points, if you’re into creepy mystical idols! 


Abraham Lincoln said...

An interesting crew of actors here. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre make their way into a good deal of well-known movies, and some together, but they typically don't serve starring roles together. (I believe the Mask of Dimitrios is one prominent exception to this, but I haven't watched it yet). To be fair, they both often play important characters that have huge effects on the plot development of whatever movie it may be, but not the type that would normally serve as a protagonist. Greenstreet primarily takes on the character of the either sinister, rich, or both fat man. From this review, he seems to maintain a somewhat similar role, which makes the trio of characters all the more interesting. On the other hand, Peter Lorre is typically not a sinister character, but sometimes caught up in shady dealings. And of course, the Hungarian actor always plays some race he isn't, being German in Arsenic and Old Lace, Japanese in Around the World in Eighty Days, and so on. But like Greenstreet, his role is often important but rarely at the forefront.

Then, throw into the mix Geraldine Fiztgerald (who I don't believe I've ever seen act before) as the mysterious woman, and we have a crew strange enough yet balanced enough to draw crowds into the theatres.

Unless, of course, it was a box office flop. It better not have been. I don't want to have to retract any statements. :)

Joe Torcivia said...


I would tend to think, given “Three Strangers” was the middle film of three Lorre and Greenstreet lead pairings, that it probably held its own at the box office. And, for all my nit-picking at the notion out here in the 21st Century, it probably helped to have it framed as the next “Maltese Falcon”.

One thing’s for sure, Lorre and Greenstreet are a great pairing, with or without Bogart, and it’s interesting to note that someone at Warner Bros. decided they could carry pictures on their own.

It’s also interesting to see that neither Lorre, nor Greenstreet, nor Geraldine Fitzgerald emerges as the true “star” (or “lead”) of the film – but, as the “Three Strangers” title indicates, the three carry the picture together, and separately, in pretty much equal proportion.

Digression: Just looking at Lorre and Greenstreet in the purest physical sense, I sometimes wonder why WB never attempted to pair them up as a nominal “comedy team”. Honestly, I probably would not have cared for the idea because it would have diluted their great noir and intrigue roles, to the point where we wouldn’t have “taken them seriously” anymore. Sorta in the same way we don’t take Leslie Nielsen seriously anymore, even when we see him in things like “The Poseidon Adventure”. (…We instinctively read “comedy” into that role – even if it was not Irwin Allen’s intention – to the point that it was even satirized on WB’s animated Freakazoid!) I’d hate to see that sort of “typing” diminish “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca”, so I’m glad it never happened.

Finally, I’d have never heard of “Three Strangers” if not for the e-mail marketing of The Warner Archive Collection. And, with my fondness for Lorre and Greenstreet, it was just a matter of waiting for the right holiday promotion (Memorial Day) to pick it up. Needless to say, I’m glad I did – and am glad Warner Archives makes such “lesser” films available, increasing our overall awareness of them.

I’ve since observed that Greenstreet is tapped for the same “trailer narration technique” in “The Mask of Dimitrios”. “The Verdict”, alas, does not come with an actual trailer – but offers an early clip from the film “masquerading” as a trailer – so we’ll never know if he narrated that one as well.

Chris Barat said...


John Huston was one of the writers on this, and it definitely sounds like something up his (dark) alley.

Whenever I hear of disembodied heads introducing movies, I always think of ... shudder... FELIX THE CAT: THE MOVIE.


Joe Torcivia said...

Yes indeed, Chris. And my bad for omitting John Huston, considering how I’ve lauded him in past reviews.

Egad! Felix would have been even spookier in Greenstreet’s “trailer framing”, because only the whites of his eyes and muzzle would show!

“Come closer! There’s something in my magic bag I want you to see!”

At this point, I’d start running!

Chris Barat said...


Making matters worse, the Felix head was 3-D CGI, whereas the rest of the movie was conventional flat 2-D! Yes, it looks as bizarre as it sounds!