4 April 2004 | tjonasgreen
Interesting black comedy about greed in a movie rich with detail and atmosphere.
A very literate script by John Huston and Howard Koch makes this one worth seeing. Only after the initial intriguing premise is set in motion do we discover to our amusement that all the characters we've become interested in are fairly despicable, particularly Geraldine Fitzgerald as a sociopath and nymphomaniac. With the unusually well observed character details provided by the script and the use of many supporting and bit actors one hasn't seen in lots of other pictures, THREE STRANGERS really has something of the atmosphere of London in 1938 rather than of London-via-Hollywood.
And make no mistake: Despite good direction by Jean Negulesco, John Huston's cynicism, pessimism and misogyny are evident everywhere, and that alone makes this unusual in a '40s picture. Like MALTESE FALCON it is a black comedy about greed, but it has no big stars, no glamor, and only the sliest, cruelest humor. Add the perfectly judged performances of everyone in this film, and it adds up to a neglected near-classic, one that seemed to predict the funnier and more elegant KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS.
As the real star of the film, Peter Lorre is wonderfully wry and quite lovable as one of life's eternal losers. Sydney Greenstreet often played nasty men deliciously but here he takes his character's weakness and pettiness much further than usual, and his scenes of escalating madness are very effective. Geraldine Fitzgerald's portrait of an amoral seductress is different than what she usually played at Warners, and should be considered some kind of '40s milestone in the depiction of depraved women alongside Gene Tierney in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN and Agnes Moorehead in DARK PASSAGE. She's aided by some very form-fitting Milo Anderson gowns, one of which, a pleated satin negligee, was recycled in black for Patricia Neal in THE FOUNTAINHEAD a few years later. It looks great in both incarnations. In smaller parts Peter Whitney makes an impression as a soft-hearted (and homosexual?) crony of Lorre's, and Rosalind Ivan is memorable as a dotty widow who is much shrewder than she appears. Finally, the casting of Fitzgerald, Marjorie Riordan and Joan Lorring (who looks like a young Irene Selznick) is curious: all three young women have prominent noses, darkly painted lips and very dark, shoulder-length hair which is styled similarly. And as each character descends in economic scale, her looks are heavier and plainer. Another comment on how fickle fortune can be? Anne Sharp's comment below that the characters are meant to illustrate the dark forces that enabled WWII is interesting and valuable.
By the way, the print shown on TCM is rather dim, sketchy and full of harsh contrasts so it's hard to judge what the film was actually meant to look like. Whoever now owns the Warner Bros. library should strike a pristine version of this one.