This film’s most unique feature is its three (almost completely) separate storylines about three strangers that connect by way of a single incident. An incident that figures significantly in the various characters’ fates.
This event occurs right at the start, when Crystal Shackleford (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald) manages to convince two strange men to join her in her flat. (It’s in London, so it’s a flat, not an apartment.) The strangers are solicitor Jerome K. Arbutny (played by Sidney Greenstreet) and a drunkard whose occupation remains unknown, but whose name is Johnny West (played by Peter Lorre).
Now, why these guys choose to follow this complete stranger into her home is never completely explained. Apparently, we are to believe that she has the magic ability that femme fatales have to draw men within the confines of their living quarters. Is it for sexual favors? No. However, eventually, her reasons for doing this become clear.
It’s the Chinese New Year and she needs two strangers with her at midnight to witness her making a wish on a metal statue of Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of fortune and destiny. There is one catch-well, more than one-the idol must open her eyes for the wish to be granted. And wouldn’t you know, there’s a lotto ticket with this dame’s name on it. And she promises to split the money with the two strange dudes if she wins the lotto. Or so she says.
However-because it can’t be that simple-she also makes it part of their pact to put the winnings on a horse running in the Grand National. So you can imagine where this goes, right?
Okay then. After the hocus-pocus scene in which we learn pretty much nothing (since a convenient wind blows the candles out, plunging the place into darkness, so no one can verify whether the eyes open or not, etc.), the three strangers basically go their separate ways and have three separate stories that end up linking in large part due to their New Year’s Eve festivities.
I should mention that the film starts with a rolling text that explains the history of the idol and what it means and it’s value, etc., etc., with the idol displayed in the background like an ancient Chinese version of the Maltese Falcon. Except, well… it isn’t. But the movie was considered a possible sequel to that film- The Maltese Falcon, that is. The plan was to bring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor back on board for this movie.
Although the situation and the characters are quite different, one can spot a few tiny similarities between those films. Sidney Greenstreet plays a great, big influential solicitor (that’s British for the kind of lawyer who doesn’t do courtroom scenes) who plays fast and loose with a wealthy widow’s trust money. Peter Lorre, in one of the very few romantic lead roles he played, is an innocuous drunk, falsely accused of murder.
Meanwhile, Geraldine Fitzgerald as the femme fatale was initially considered for the part of Brigid O’Shaughnessy (and one can easily see why), which does nothing to dispel hints that this was intended at one point to be a sequel.
However, this film is way too different to serve that purpose. And while the ending is straight noir for two of the characters, the third one ends up being lucky.
As I said, it’s the three-storyline structure that gives this film its most distinctive characteristic. Not as complex as The Killing, which features out-of-sequence scenes woven together like a patchwork knitting project, or The Locket, which has flashbacks within flashbacks.
Nonetheless, still interesting enough to keep you watching.
With more than a passing resemblance to The Maltese Falcon! Or, at least, promoted as if it were the sequel. 🙂
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Directed by Jean Negulesco
Produced by Wolfgang Reinhardt
Screenplay by John Huston and Howard Koch
Originally published at http://debbimacktoo.wordpress.com on August 13, 2020.