Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Geraldine Fitzgerald are the strangers, drawn together by a winning lottery ticket. Greenstreet plays Jerome, a prominent attorney, Lorre is John, a small-time crook, and Fitzgerald’s role is Crystal, an estranged wife. With a cast like this, we know more than a few speed bumps will impede the happy pay-off. For one thing, Crystal talks John and Jerome into buying the ticket because a Chinese statue will exert a spell over it.
In supporting roles are Joan Loring and Peter Whitney as John’s accomplices Icey and Gabby; the murderer Bertram Fallon’s played by Robert Shayne; Alan Napier is David, Crystal’s husband; Marjorie Riordan is Janet, David’s actual love interest; Doris Lloyd is Fallon’s landlady, Mrs. Proctor, and Rosalind Ivan is the ditzy Lady Rhea Belladon.
Apparently, the story had been around for ten years, but it wasn’t until after the war, and the success of 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, another mystery centered on a totemistic object, that John Huston’s script was turned into a film.
The statue of Kwan Yin is the first thing we see, with accompanying narrative. Then we’re back to 1938 London. Crystal is followed by Jerome; he introduces himself, or tries to. She says she’s been looking for him. John is already at her place when she and Jerome go up.
None of them know each other “we’re three strangers.” Got it. She says she’s brought them together to see the status of Kwan Yin; according to the goddesses’ legend, a wish will be granted to three strangers on Chinese New Year. John’s already got an Irish Sweepstakes lottery ticket; so their wish, logically enough, is that it’s a winner. They agree to go in on it for equal shares.
Crystal tells them about her estranged husband as they each relate what they’ll do if they win the lottery. At the stroke of midnight, Crystal invokes Kwan Yin. The two guys leave. Coincidentally, David appears on the stairs. Crystal’s happy to see him; she thinks he wants to reconcile. But he says that they’re “over and done with.”
He says he’s met Janet, and intends to marry her. But she digs in: “I’ll never give you a divorce as long as you live!” Ok, then we look in on Johnny. Icey finds him in a pub. He’s drunk, mumbling about Kwan Yin. A guy named Bertram Fallon is on the front page, wanted for murder. Well, Fallon’s also on everyone’s mind it when they visit Gabby.
We have a court scene in which Fallon is tried for killing a cop. Later, Gabby and Johnny go over the testimony. Mrs. Proctor bugs them. In fact, were it not for some fast thinking from Johnny, Gabby might’ve bagged her–just for getting on his nerves.
Now, we switch to Jerome. His client, Lady Rhea, blathers on about something. With the tell-tale quavering screen segue, we move to Fallon. Icey tries to extort Bert; if he doesn’t fork over, she tweaks her testimony in his trial. One of the defense witnesses is impugned. Probably for that reason, Fallon suddenly decides to plead guilty–naming names in return for consideration in his sentencing.
In other words, Gabby, Icey, and Johnny are fingered. They hide in a dingy old ruin. Johnny gets philosophical with Icey “I’m gonna stick with you Johnny” she promises. Anyway, they arrange to rendevous later in a safer spot. He goes into the Blue Crown pub; a cop rousts him. Ivey and Gaby see him leave, but there’s nothing they can do.
Another segue. Crystal goes to see Sir Robert, David’s boss. She says she’s concerned about a scandal–his affair with Janet, that is. She meets up with David that night. She affects to cozy up to him; “are you afraid of me?” “Give me a chance…” etc. Then she burns him with a cigarette. He retaliates by nearly choking her.
She calls a detective agency. Across town, David and Janet meet in a restaurant to discuss the situation with Crystal. Janet wants to have a go at her, but David tells her Crystal’s “dangerous.” Well, Janet hasn’t a choice–Crystal’s waiting for her when she comes home. Of course, Crystal tries to imply that David is just playing around with Janet; the clincher comes when Crystal tells her that she and David are having a kid.
Segue time. Jerome’s investment in South Africa goes bust; he’s crestfallen. He goes to Lady Rhea’s to tell her that he loves her; she’s a widower. He proposes–thats one way to square his accounts, marry a rich widower (it’s her money that’s at stake). No dice.
Oh, boy. Johnny’s found guilty for his role in the policeman’s murder. Well, Jerome is further miffed when Lady Rhea comes calling; there’s a sort of footnote to her refusal of the previous night. She’s ‘consulted’ with her dead husband (i.e., his ghost or whatnot). He said forget Jerome. Well, he’s up to something; in fact he’s going to shoot himself!
But wait…the paper he’s spread out on the floor (to catch his skull, presumably) reads that the Sweepstakes is that day. He goes to Crystal. His problem is that he needs the money right away. But Crystal refuses to divide up the money until Johnny can get his share. That could take a while.
Well, Icey pleads Johnny’s case to the prosecutor. Gabby, a loyal sidekick if there ever was one, boards the train that’s taking Fenton to prison. With a cunning ruse, he gets into Fallon’s compartment, and stabs the guy. The upshot of all this is that, with a dying confession from ol’ Fenton, Johnny is cleared of blame for Fenton’s crime. Johnny’s freed.
And then Johnny hears about the race. Finally, with all three strangers meeting up at Crystal’s, Jerome wants to sell his share. Johnny says ok, but Crystal won’t budge. Jerome pleads “Money means more to me than my life! It means my honor!” Nice zealous speech, but he unfortunately punctuates it with by crowning her with the heavy Kwan Yin statue.
Crystal dies. Johnny thinks that they’re both deep into it; however, nothing connects the three of them but the ticket (it has their names on it). “How can I be quiet, when the devil’s abroad!” Jerome completely loses it, attracting a crowd with his raving. But, even with a cop in the mix, no one believes him when he’s screaming about a murder. David’s going to find the body, though.
In the Blue Crown, Johnny figures out what to do. With Icey looking on, he burns the evidence. Like the people in the crowd outside, she doesn’t believe the truth (that the ticket is the winner). She’s happy that he’s been freed; he’s happy that he could’ve been entrapped again, but wasn’t. The end.
This was great. It got a little talky in the middle here and there, but it drew us in with a snappy beginning, and finished with a lot of clever flourishes. Interestingly, Jerome is the only one who actually needed the money. And, thanks to his greed, he messed it up for everyone.
Johnny made out the best, as noted. Indeed, he’s the only ‘stranger’ who didn’t lose. Obviously, Crystal’s dead, and Jerome, even if his ravings are ignored such that he’s never tied to the body, still loses financially. We could even assume that he’ll contemplate suicide again, particularly if he’s caught.
Gambling on the South African venture got Jerome into his mess, but, strangely, had he let the Sweepstakes gamble play out, he would’ve been fine. Jerome is a basket case of nerves as the radio broadcast moves relentlessly toward to the start of the race. His bargain is a sort of puzzle in itself; the ticket wouldn’t have to win to help the ‘seller’ (Crystal or Johnny).
In fact, it would be a smart play. Win or lose, Crystal/and/or Johnny would get part of the money. What this means is that Crystal is as greedy as Jerome (holding out for a full share); Johnny would bargain for a sure thing.
To back away from the intricacies of the plot (a lot builds from the simple premise), the performances are outstanding. All the characters are quite different personalities; both the ‘strangers’ and the supporting characters. There’s a sort of unity of purpose; the believable roles help the story’s coherence. The tone slides from sinister to staid to mocking several times without disturbing our sense of disbelief.
The effect is that we feel that this is how people like this, in just this sort of situation, would act. All of the main characters are flawed–especially Crystal; she’s arrogant and manipulative. Jerome is essentially a weak man. Johnny is easily the best person of the three–a sort of hapless chump (fairly positive for a Peter Lorre role).
I would only quibble with this otherwise elegant script because of Lorre’s occasional speeches to Icey; we can see, by the dialogue and action, what the drama is about–we don’t need handy summaries offered by a character.
A very entertaining and thoughtful movie. 9.5/10