Thursday, April 03, 2008

Three Strangers (1946)

There's a sparkling discussion of the very notion of auteurism going on at Girish's place, the Internet coffee house for some of the best cinephile minds around. The Siren has been lurking, reluctant to weigh in since her feelings about auteurism tend to waffle. In a sense the driving creative force behind old Hollywood classics was the studio system itself, the way it could gather together an extraordinary amount of talent in all aspects of production. On the other hand, when discussing the career of someone like Lubitsch or Lang (to name two particular Siren favorites) it would be absurd not to acknowledge the common themes and personal vision behind each movie. Midst all the to-and-fro, the Siren is partial to Girish's conclusion: "Auteurism is not an account of how films are made. It is instead one among many ways we, as viewers, choose to read a film. In other words, it is one particular lens through which films can be viewed: by foregrounding the 'marks' of expression belonging to one person, the auteur, most frequently the director."

Is auteurism useful, then, for discussing Jean Negulesco? After watching two excellent films in a row, the Siren says yes. She once described him as a guilty pleasure, but no more. The more she sees of Negulesco's movies, the more the Siren thinks she should trust her taste on this one.

David Thomson says Jean Negulesco "bloomed in that Indian summer" of Warner Brothers' 1940s style. Thomson describes that style deliciously, as it was epitomized by Casablanca: "narrative pace and density--an old hallmark of the gangster pictures--low-key black-and-white photography, and the glamour of cynical worldly people exchanging off-hand, knowing dialogue." Thomson cites The Mask of Dimitrios and Three Strangers, both of which the Siren saw recently, as exemplifying Negulesco's "entrancing, velvety quality of a dream world brought to life." But Thomson's final, withering line on the director's later work was that he "illustrates the power of the studios over a minor talent." Andrew Sarris went further: "Everything after Cinemascope is completely worthless." Well, the Siren happens to like Negulesco's Cinemascope movies and regrets having long thought of them as eye candy, despite her unabashed love for his "three girls" cycle. That's for another day, when Three Coins in the Fountain sifts to the top of the Netflix queue.

Three Strangers (1946) (one girl and two men this time) screened one morning last month on TCM. (It's unavailable on DVD at the moment, but TCM shows it from time to time. You can watch almost all the movie in pieces on Youtube, but the online format does an already murky print no favors.) Three Strangers--screenplay by John Huston and Howard Koch, cinematography by Arthur Edeson--was a delight. It's suspenseful, well-acted and has a great deal of subtle depth. Plus it starred the greatest screen team of the 1940s, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet.

This clip, which begins just after the credits, shows how the Siren got hooked.

So here we have Fitzgerald (John Huston's original choice for Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon) picking up a strange man on a street and bringing him back to her apartment, in a case of apparent streetwalking that's quite amazingly blatant for the period. The Siren loves how Negulesco shows you only Fitzgerald's face and none of her marks, as she's searching, searching, until the moment when she turns on the full come-hither. Even then, you don't get to see the mark's initial reaction, you just get her continuing to walk, confident of being followed, and then the man's face when he turns.

And you see, good grief, it's Sydney Greenstreet, far from the first man the Siren would pull off the sidewalk, despite her love for his acting. You realize he doesn't make a habit of this sort of thing when he starts to introduce himself, but you also know what the character wanted (if there was any doubt) when they reach Fitzgerald's flat. A very drunk Peter Lorre pops up from the sofa, and Greenstreet starts to leave in a huff. A threesome? No thank you.

A moody, atmospheric sequence that's still prurient as all hell. Isn't that what we all want in a noir?

Fitzgerald has pulled the two men off the street to fulfill a legend about the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, whose statue has a place of honor in the apartment. Kwan Yin will grant a wish on Chinese New Year, but it must be the wish of three strangers, and it must be the same wish. In the very practical way common to Negulesco, money is immediately chosen as the one life-improving thing they all could wish for.

Lorre produces a sweepstakes ticket, bought with his last few pennies because the girl selling it was cute. The three strangers attach their wish to the ticket, and agree to put the money on a horse. Fitzgerald wants money to lure back her husband, Greenstreet wants money to become a judge. Lorre, the black sheep of a good family, has slid to the very bottom of the social heap and just wants survival and a better class of liquor.

The plot is intricate and has surprises from the beginning, so the Siren won't summarize any more than that. None of the three strangers are precisely what they seem to be at the outset--fakery as a means of social-climbing is a recurring aspect of Negulesco movies as well. Lorre's character was originally to be played by (get this) Humphrey Bogart, but Negulesco cast him in the belief that the actor could do anything. All three actors are indeed excellent, but for the Siren, Greenstreet gives the truly outstanding performance.

The Siren remarked recently that Lorre and Greenstreet usually played like a couple (see Dan Callahan's piece on Lorre for a wickedly funny take on The Maltese Falcon). Here, however, we get a subplot that deals with an associate of Lorre's character, a thief called Gabby who's in love with Lorre. It was startling to see this played as forthrightly as the Production Code could allow--it is all in actor Peter Whitney's reaction shots, and played to the poignant hilt. Gabby's last scene is as four-hanky as anything Negulesco ever filmed.

(Above, Negulesco with John Garfield and Joan Crawford during the filming of Humoresque.)


surly hack said...

Negulesco is one of those directors with great style who are somewhat slippery when it comes todetermining auteur status. For instance, what did the equally great Michael Curtiz have to say?

I remember Three Strangers as being a lot of fun, which is how I think of most of his films. And when assessing Negulesco, don't forget the crazy, smoky, Road House.

The Siren said...

Yep, Surly, I think we are on the same page. Curtiz is another example. Examined one by one his movies are clearly fantastic, but trying to tie together his whole filmography is like nailing Jello to the wall.

But I do find that a movie that's a lot of fun usually--not always, but usually--has something going on behind the surface. If I start really trying to draw a bead on Negulesco, I may not find as much going on as with, say, Sirk. (Though that's probably not a fair comparison. Even Sirk's subtext has subtext.) But I'm convinced these no-holds-barred melos of Negulesco will reward closer readings.

I haven't seen Road House in yonks and I also want to see Woman's World, which as I recall Noel Vera holds in high esteem.

surly hack said...

Do you find that in general, the forties melos relied more on style than thirties melos? Maybe it is simply a case of different styles, but the darker, crazier noirish forties films can be fun even if they don't amount to more than that.

And the stronger the style, the harder it is to separate it from the content.

The Siren said...

I think it's more like the style had just evolved into something more elaborate, like Baroque giving way to Rococo. Three Strangers obviously owed a lot to The Maltese Falcon of five years earlier, even down to the quasi-mystic statue. But everything's more elaborate--the interiors, the subplots, the lighting. The anti-hero is anti-er, the femme is bitchier, Greenstreet is crazier and fate is more relentless. The Maltese Falcon is better, of course, but this ornate variation was still a treat in its own way.

surly hack said...

Hmmm...and Falcon was a "remake" of a thirties film without it's style.

The Siren said... if someone picks up the "mysterious statue" theme for the 00s, I suppose they will have to have dissolving humans in an alternative universe, a la The Matrix, and plenty of Cuisinart-julienned editing...

goatdog said...

The only post-Cinemascope Negulesco film I've seen is the near-dreadful Three Coins in the Fountain, a "woman's film" that couldn't be more cruel to its women. The bigger enemy (bigger than the completely unexamined misogyny) is the Cinemascope itself: by the end, I was crying and begging for some shot variation, maybe one close-up, just one, pretty please. Alas.

But Road House is perfect, crazy, smoky (thanks, Surlyh), and desperate, one of the best non-urban noirs. Deep Valley is pretty darned good, although it really needed Burt Lancaster instead of whoever that guy was. Mask of Dimitrios and Three Strangers is one of the great one-two punches of the 1940s. And his autobiography, Things I Did and Things I Think I Did, is one of the all-time great Hollywood memoirs. I like or love everything by him that I've seen, except Three Coins. But he's not an auteur, which is fine: auteurist criticism tends to exhaust itself pretty quickly when it comes to the studio system. Beyond the notable few exceptions, you're just using the wrong tool for the job.

surly hack said...

I sometimes wonder if Cornel Wilde gave up writing after Leave Her To Heaven, moved to the other side of the lake, and took up managing Jefty's in Road House.

Leave Her To Heaven, now there's a crazy melodrama.

surly hack said...

" if someone picks up the "mysterious statue" theme for the 00s, I suppose they will have to have dissolving humans in an alternative universe, a la The Matrix, and plenty of Cuisinart-julienned editing..."

Well, don't forget Rowan and Martin's Maltese Bippy...

The Siren said...

What, M., no love for Three Coins? I tell you I was crazy for this movie as a teen. I didn't think it was a masterpiece or anything but still I couldn't resist it. Any misogyny flew right over my girlish little head. It was 9/10 of why the first city I visited in Italy was Rome. The last time I saw it was at least five years ago, so I'll be interested to revisit it. All right, so convincing you of Negulesco's auteur status will be a slog and Three Coins may be impossible. But you have to admit that the suits in The Best of Everything are fabulous and Suzy Parker was some dish.

Leave Her to Heaven was another girlhood favorite and I was flummoxed when about 15 years ago I started to see it discussed seriously. See, that's what I mean by entertaining often = deep.

All right, Surly, now I'm off to check Youtube for "the Maltese Bippy." or are you pulling my leg?

goatdog said...

I haven't seen The Best of Everything, but knowing what I know of Negulesco-in-color, I'm sure the suits are fabulous, and a google image search tells me that Suzy Parker is indeed some dish.

The best things I can say about Three Coins are that the performances are very good, and Rome certainly looks great. (But I don't think Negulesco had much to do with the latter.)

Have you read his autobiography? Let me praise it again: it's outstanding. I started copying the best anecdotes but had to give it up after a couple of chapters, because I'd have ended up copying the entire book. Also, Negulesco was a great artist, and the book is filled with his sketches of Hollywood people he knew and worked with.

Karen said...

I agree that it's extremely tough to make the auteur argument about the directors who woked under the studio system. Another example would be the great Rouben Mamoulian--a stylistic genius, but a director with a consistent authorial voice? I don't think so!

He has a surprisingly small body of work, but it runs the gamut. He goes from gritty urban melodrama (City Streets to sexualized horror story (the Fredric March Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) to giddy 19th-century morality tale (Becky Sharp) to swashbuckling romance (The Mark of Zorro) to quasi-noir (Laura) to frothy musical (Silk Stockings). Now, every single one of those is a great film (and I've left out Golden Boy and Blood and Sand and Queen Christina and ...)--but was Mamoulian expressing an authorial voice? No, he was doing his job, and applying his very great talent to it. I remember going to see City Streets at Film Forum (the whole audience gasped audibly at the first shot of Gary Cooper; he was that beautiful), and being really struck by Mamoulian indicating that a certain gangster had died by showing his distinctive hat drifting slowly down a river. Moody, evocative stuff. But...authorial?

One of the undisputed auteur directors, John Ford, worked on the VERY odd and ultimately unsuccessful Four Men and a Prayer. He said about it, "I just didn't like the story, or anything about it, so it was a job of work."

These guys were journeymen. They were given a job of work. Sometimes, if they became well-known or successful enough they could use that power to choose their stories. But the vast majority were cogs in the machine (did directors even ever have the clout to negotiate contracts the way, say, Bette Davis did?). They could be wonderfully pretty and talented cogs, but cogs nonetheless.

That's not a crack, by the way. I think it's pretty impressaive, the work a lot of them did under those circumstances.

Exiled in NJ said...

Phone Call From a Stranger is Negulesco just before the 50's color era broke; my wife has a thing for it, and we finally found a tape. My first thought was that the Merrill's, Gary & Bette, were forming a stock company, but by the time it was made it was out of its time, yet it is great fun, and our dear Bette seems to be anticipating her roles ten years on.

Strangers was on video once for my first wife and I watched it and loved it. Funny but there are so many films Morgan and I saw 10-15 years ago from the mid to late-40s that have disappeared from the market place: Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Private Affairs of Bel Ami [she had a thing for George Sanders], and of course, Siren's Letters from an Unknown Woman.

Dimitrios is almost a perfect example of studio thinking in those days: Lorre and Greenstreet are not close to Eric Ambler's characters, but they play off each other wonderfully. Zachary Scott is a decent Dimitrios, though a bit young. The book itself is the best intrigue novel published between Maugham and early leCarre

D Cairns said...

Just found this place -- great blog!

Agree with exiled_in_nj re the merits of Eric Ambler, who's a great entertainer and a humane voice in the world of the thriller.

I seem to have seen different Negulescos from the ones discussed so far. I was very impressed by Humoresque's box of tricks, which is way more individual and quirky for its period than just the Warners house style. I think Curtiz elevates the house style to genius, but Negulesco adds other elements.)

Titanic is very camp and very enjoyable, and begins delightfully with the birth of the iceberg!

Three Came Home is quite hard-edged, with Claudette Colbert, an actress supposedly so concerned about her appearance, appearing sans makeup and smeared with grime.

I was only a kid when I saw Johnny Belinda but I remember it being pretty powerful.

Boy on a Dolphin is a slightly dull travelogue but when Sophia Loren emerges from the sea in a wet shirt it suddenly aquires the stature of masterpiece!

surly hack said...

Responding to Karen-

Style and content, a sticky wicket indeed. Often confusion arises with the use of "authorial" for "auteur". In film, the VISUAL counts as content, not just the story. In fact, visual IS content. This is where it all gets tricky, with so many great visual stylists whose skill and facility never quite amount to a "voice". With directors whom we agree are auteurs, style and content can seem inseparable. And couldn't even an otherwise journeyman turn a particular job that they connect with into something personal? Could Ford film a script he was given, and without changing a word, make it "his"? If so, why not Mamoulian? As director, did he shape the films into something unique, and is that something worth talking about as "Mamoulian"?

Film is an expensive "business", even when it is an art. Very few have ever worked in it with a completely free hand, and there is no guarantee that those who do will use it to their advantage. Whether job or art project, what's important is on the screen, not how it got there.

The Siren said...

"As director, did he shape the films into something unique, and is that something worth talking about as "Mamoulian"?"

I think he did, actually, but I can only do this stuff one director at a time. :D

surly hack said...

Didn't you ever hear of multi-tasking? ;)

surly hack said...

Speaking of melodramas, one of the best at the form was Frank Borzage. A rare film of Borzage's, The River, has been released on dvd.

The Siren said...

since I chose the "triple dosage" format with the children, I have to do directors in the single-serving packets. I saw that Borzage is out! slowly but surely. Now if they'd just get cracking on Desire.

Exiled & David C, A Coffin for Dimitrios is the best spy novel I have ever read so I was pleased the film version was so good. Scott wasn't my concept of Dimitrios (too good looking for one thing) but it worked. If either one of you want to recommend another Ambler I'm all ears. I have also read The Light of Day and Epitaph for a Spy.

Karen, remember how Lubitsch tried to start a rumor that Gary Cooper and Garbo were the same person? He was ridiculously beautiful.

Exiled in NJ said...

In my copy of Dimitrios, Greil Marcus says in an introduction, or rather quotes a friend, 'After the war, he must have lost his sense of dread,' and in an interview with Julian Symons, late in life, he confessed to having lost his subject matter after the Nazi-Soviet pact, a "loss of belief" as he put it. There are few other Ambler's that I can remember.

In some ways, leCarre went the same way. Once he began to have a rooting interest in his characters, the books lost something.

D Cairns said...

Nearly all the 30s Ambler I read was great. Journey Into Fear is worth a read -- it's a sequel of sorts to Dimitrios and it makes a very interesting comparison to the Welles-Foster film. Not a FAITHFUL adaptation, but by no means unrelated to its source.
I remember Background to Danger being great fun too, though I'm not wild about that title!

Noel Vera said...

Alas, Campaspe, have yet to see Woman's World. The one I enjoyed very much was The Best of Everything, with a nuanced performance by Joan Crawford. And I remember Johnny Belinda being wonderful melodrama.

But Cinemascope hain't so bad. Not Cinemascope exactly, but widescreen films like The Hidden Fortress and Playtime show the possibilities of the format.

Was looking at Vidor's Comrade X. Is it just me or does this film, made a year after and clearly cashing in on Ninotchka, have more teeth, satirically speaking, and is Lamar (blasphemy, blasphemy) a sweeter, more desireable object of worship than the great Garbo?

Vidor ain't Lubitsch--I'd hate to even begin comparing the two. But if Vidor doesn't achieve Lubitsch's delicate comic tone, he does have this prison-and=firing squad sequence that seems like a parody of Graham Greene, plus a lengthy chase involving a battalion of dancing tanks that's nothing short of breathtaking.

So I hear rumors that Lamar and Gable didn't get along--so what? Onscreen they're an attractive couple, and they work well together comically speaking.

Thombeau said...

The Best of Everything is fabulous, though so dated as to be a bit campy now. Really, a precursor to Valley of the Dolls, for what that's worth! Great performances by Suzy Parker and especially Miss Crawford in her first supporting role, after being the lead for so long. And Stephen Boyd is gorgeous! All in all, a very midcentury film. The sort that the couple in Far From Heaven would have seen!

WelcometoLA said...

I just found a hardback copy of Negulesco's memoir in a used book store for $9.50. It looks interesting.

Menky said...

See many beautiful photos from Humoresque at the link below: