During my bi-monthly scan of new offerings from the fine folks at Warner Archive, I discovered yet another film noir that had previously eluded my view. The mere fact that the 1947 film Three Strangers stars Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre was enough to clinch the sale. It has been waiting, babies, on my unwatched shelf for several months, casting its gaze over all my activities like some sort of bronze Chinese idol.
Apparently, Three Strangers started life as a kind of sequel to The Maltese Falcon. Not a traditional sequel, mind you, given how many of Falcon’s characters are dead or in prison by the end of the film; instead, it’s more of a re-teaming of talent. John Huston, who had adapted and directed Falcon, co-wrote the script; he was unable to direct because he was still serving in the US Army Signal Corp. The film was co-written by Howard Koch, who had adapted Casablanca for the screen in 1941, and was here only months from being blacklisted by HUAC.
Crazy Historical Tangent About The Irish Sweepstakes: One small problem is that Three Strangers relies on the audience having a firm and complete understanding of the intricacies of the Irish Sweepstakes—this would not have been a problem in 1946, since the Sweepstakes was enormously popular. Originally conceived in 1930 as a way to help impoverished, under-populated Ireland raise money for badly needed hospitals, at its height the Irish Sweeps sold millions of tickets in the UK and (illegally) the US, mostly within immigrant populations. Unlike modern lotteries and sweepstakes, it was a two-level system: once tickets were purchased, the stubs were put into a drum and the potential winners were drawn (by real nurses, to great public fanfare) and assigned to a horse in an upcoming race; other tickets were then valueless. The value of the drawn tickets correlated to the odds on the horse in the race, and final payout was then dependent on whether that ticket’s horse would win, place, or show; the cash prizes could be enormous, for the era (era.) Ironically—at least in relation to its place in a film noir like Three Strangers—the Irish Sweepstakes was rife with graft and counterfeiting, and was later revealed to be something of a scam.
The film also features an intriguing subtext about the limits of faith and belief. The three main characters are sharply divided by their attitude about the Kwan Yin prophecy and the way they each view life itself. The film seems to come out on the side of the character who has learned not to challenge fate—in general, any attempt to change one’s fate in a film noir is a fool’s errand—but the ending challenges that trope and adds dimension to the movie’s themes and even its treatment of the genre.
The fact that Three Strangers received a release on Warner Archive—instead of a “proper” DVD or Blu-ray release—proves that it is tragically overlooked. If I have not been able to convince you by now, babies, check out this terrific noiry-noir trailer.
It’s available from Warner Archive as MOD DVD or for rent from Amazon VOD. Do not rely on ancient prophecies or bronze idols—take responsibility for your own lives, dammit, and watch this movie.