In the Lap of the Goddess

True story:  Some years back, I was working on a freelance database project being overseen by a woman younger than me, but of a studious and deliberative demeanor.  One day, kindly taking me out to lunch, she confessed that her true passion was not for database work but for the practice of reiki, which she explained as a kind of “laying-on of hands” healing method.  As I listened politely, she described what her studies and technique consisted of; and then further explained that, as an aid in channeling her psychic energy, she invoked the guidance of the goddess Kwan Yin.  At the mention of that name I, like the proverbial war horse hearing the bugle, perked up and jumped in.

Ah, yes, I burbled happily, I know of the goddess Kwan Yin!  Had my host ever seen this movie called Three Strangers, in which the title trio on the eve of the Chinese New Year makes a wish to said goddess, in the hopes of winning a packet of money and thus realizing their deepest desires, only for the whole thing to go kablooey, of course, with the most unfortunate results for our three protagonists, but there was this statue of Kwan Yin in the movie, and she opens her eyes as the clock strikes twelve, and the three take it as a sign that their wish has been granted, and it’s this famous film noir, very much in the 1940s style, with this terrific cast …

At that point my young friend, gazing at me with what I can only call a definite Look, smiled frostily and changed the subject.

Ah, well.  Three Strangers may not be within everyone’s ken (though I hope to remedy that lack with this post).  But it’s a damn fine film, directed by Jean Negulesco, co-written by John Huston, and released by Warner Bros. in 1946 at the height of what might be called the crime thriller epoch in Hollywood cinema; and as for that terrific cast:  Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Peter Lorre, all in top form.  I mean, what a film.

The damn fineness of it is evident from almost the film’s first moments.  Right after the display of the Warner Bros. shield, that terrific cast is introduced, one by one in close-up, with instrumental leitmotifs:  Greenstreet on deep-throated brass, Fitzgerald on yearning strings, Lorre on a whining sax.  We get who these people are right from the soundtrack—Greenstreet pompous and slow, Fitzgerald romantic and high-strung, Lorre ironic and dissolute.  And then, after the opening, Negulesco does something masterly.  He starts with a long traveling shot, no dialogue, of Fitzgerald walking a crowded street at night, searching faces intently.  Gazing at one male passerby she drops her eyes as he, in passing, turns to looks back with interest.  Walking on, she pauses, a slight smile on her face as she sees something offscreen left.  She then passes out of frame on screen left, and a moment later Greenstreet enters, also from the left and heading toward screen right; but then he stops, turns, and looks back in Fitzgerald’s direction, his face questioning.  After a moment he, too, exits screen left, from where he came.  Only then does the camera cut to the next shot.

The sequence is striking in that Negulesco has not used a conventional shot-reverse-shot structure, of the camera cutting between an exchange of looks, eyelines matched.  Instead, he uses the motion of his actors to introduce how two of his principals come together, Fitzgerald looking and moving on and then Greenstreet entering and looking back.  The exchange of glances between the pair is suggested but not seen; the two never make that visual link via editing, nor are they are ever in the frame together.  They each have obviously seen something, which is presumably each other, yet Negulesco only implies their gazes meeting.  That something is happening between these characters is shown to us, the viewers, but it is also, simultaneously, withheld.  The scene, in effect, encapsulates the film’s essence:  Of connections missed, information suppressed, meanings concealed.  Nothing we see may be quite what it is.  The burden of interpretation is thus on ourselves.

The film’s plot is a variation on the classic folktale of the Three Wishes:  An individual is given three wishes, only to discover he gains nothing by making them, and his situation is left status quo (if he’s lucky).  In the film it’s three people given one wish, to be granted (as indicated above) by the goddess Kwan Yin on Chinese New Year.  The three have never met until that night (Lorre is already waiting in Fitzgerald’s apartment when she returns with Greenstreet, having been picked up earlier), and they choose, via a sweepstakes ticket, the winnings to be placed on a high-stakes horse race, a straight-down-the-line wish for money.  It’s the one thing they want in common, and the one thing they’re sure will be the conduit to granting their real desires.  As midnight tolls in the New Year, the trio gazes breathlessly at Kwan Yin’s statue and waits … is that a smile on her lips?  A glimmer of light beneath her eyelids?  Or is it an illusion, a trick of light, a projection of group desire, to be dissipated by cold reality?  The shot shows us something, but what it means, or is, is left to the characters, and the audience, to figure out.

What’s more concretely revealed at this meeting is each character’s core trait, ranged on a spectrum:  Greenstreet is the materialist, subscribing only to “what I can see, what I can get my hands on”; Fitzgerald is the believer, having faith in the occult and in what she feels (the Kwan Yin statue belongs to her, and the joint wish is her idea); while Lorre, who’s usually in a state of cheerful intoxication, is the ironist, not seriously believing one way or the other.  Yet he’s the one who understands what they’re all playing with:  “We want [Kwan Yin] to reshuffle a hand that destiny has already dealt us—why?  Because we hope to get higher cards.  A little presumptuous on our part, isn’t it?”  (Lorre gives a beautiful reading of these lines, his face twisting between cynicism and hope).  Their expectations of what will happen also run the gamut, from Fitzgerald’s wholehearted conviction to Greenstreet’s skepticism to Lorre’s detachment—but each is willing to take a gamble on a future that no one can know, much less control.  All they’ve got is a kind of hope, however strong or weak, depending on who they are—that, and an invocation to a goddess no one quite believes in.

The film then follows, in separate but overlapping plot strands, each character’s backstory and how it plays out under their looming wish.  Greenstreet’s a solicitor who embezzled a client’s trust fund to invest in failing stocks and now can’t pay back the loss; Fitzgerald’s a straying wife who desperately seeks the means to win back her estranged husband’s love; Lorre’s a cultured wastrel who regards his misspent life as a joke.  Things don’t go well for our trio.  Greenstreet, to avoid arrest, proposes marriage to his client, an eccentric wealthy widow who claims to receive ghostly visits from her late husband (the blank incomprehension on Greenstreet’s face on hearing this is priceless); Fitzgerald lies and schemes to destroy her husband’s relationship with his new girlfriend; and Lorre, after becoming entangled (apparently through sheer drunken carelessness) in a robbery and murder in which he had little agency and even less motive, is on the run from police.  Meanwhile, Time—or is it Fate, or even Kwan Yin?—moves on inexorably, to the moment when the sweepstakes ticket is chosen, the bet is placed, and our strangers’ intertwined fates will be decided.

The three stories set up a proposition:  Are the efforts of our protagonists to realize their desires determined by a wish, by chance, or by themselves?  Or have their destinies already been set, even before they meet?  In Fitzgerald’s case, her desire to win back her husband seems thwarted almost right away when he turns up to ask for a divorce.  Will her winning the sweepstakes change his mind?  While for Greenstreet, his merry widow not only refuses his proposal on the grounds that (irony of ironies for our materialist!) her incorporeal spouse advised her to do so, she also demands the books be examined at his spectral insistence.  Will Greenstreet have time to repay the funds if his horse wins the race?  (And what if the horse loses?)  As for Lorre, he’s thrown into prison and passively awaits hanging for a crime he didn’t commit.  Will a lucky win change his lot?  Could it?  We can sense the film’s noir heart here, its fatalistic notion that nothing a noir character does can make one damn bit of difference—the cards are already stacked, the markers already moved, the dice already rolled against you.  Resistance, as they say, is futile.  Or could all this be, in another ironic twist, at the whims of a capricious goddess?

I’ll note here, almost as a spoiler warning, that the film seems to lean towards the ‘Character as Fate’ theory, indicated by Lorre quoting from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, that the fault lies “not in our stars / But in ourselves.”  Fitzgerald’s scheming, for example, only alienates her husband further, as he accuses her, in reference to her Kwan Yin statue, of having “an idol instead of a soul.”  Yet the balance is not entirely one way.  The film itself, as a film, undercuts the seeming reality of its narrative:  Whenever Negulesco transitions between storylines, he uses that Old-Hollywood special effect of a wavering image on screen, as if the celluloid were rippling and dissolving before us.  It was a common, even clichéd movie device, usually signifying a dream or memory state; is its use here meant to imply that the story we’re watching may also be dream, fantasy, or wishful thinking?  That what we see is not real?  Or is it that an alternate reality may exist, affecting how the characters’ circumstances play out?  The device may not be subtle, but I like that its meaning is left for the audience to play with and decide.

I’ll make a further note about that terrific cast.  Greenstreet and Fitzgerald are both excellent as they expand on their characters’ key traits, he scrabbling to hold on to hard, unyielding fact, she sinking into rigid hysteria.  But Lorre’s performance is a revelation, of small, illuminating gestures and expressions—just the look on his face, when he’s unexpectedly moved by the compassion of a criminal accomplice, will catch at you.  Initially Lorre seems miscast, as the role seems meant to be an English aristocrat gone to seed; supposedly Negulesco fought for Lorre in the part.  As I noted in an earlier post, Lorre’s physique and voice restricted his casting; had he looked like Errol Flynn or David Niven (who were, among others, originally considered for this role), what might his career have been?  But Lorre’s oddness turns to his advantage.  His out-of-placeness jars and interests us; how much is pretense, how much is real?  The character is erudite and charming, but he’s wasted his career and talents and we never know why.  Yet throughout Lorre conveys a sense of haunted loss, of a life untold.  His carelessness and apparent lack of feeling mask something very deep indeed.

Three Strangers may not be your New Year’s Eve movie of choice—you may prefer the usual partying and merry-making, and not a sober contemplation of the path one has chosen (or not) in life.  But I’m recommending it all the same; like I said, it’s a damn fine film (and did I mention that terrific cast?), the kind that keeps noir fans arguing its finer points as to what it means, how it’s made, why it’s so good, and which character gets screwed over the most.  And it’s a film that stays with you, past midnight and beyond.  Besides, if you watch it, you’ll make me happy.  You’ll even make Kwan Yin happy.  Which is probably all to the good.

Because you never know when a goddess might be watching you.

Happy New Year.

Bonus Clip:  The trailer for Three Strangers almost makes it seem like a follow-up to The Maltese Falcon—which apparently was the studio’s original idea when making it.  The resulting film, however, took its own way and remains gloriously unique and strange.  “Thrills and Threats”!:

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