Saturday, May 03, 2003


This film, co-written by John Huston, has a fairly interesting set-up in its first 15 minutes but it's unable to follow through on that promise. The atmospheric opening, set in London on Chinese New Year's Eve, 1938, has Geraldine Fitzgerald collecting a couple of random strangers (Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre) from the street and bringing them back to her apartment. Legend has it that her statue of the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin will open its eyes at midnight on New Year's and grant the wish of three strangers, as long as they all wish for the same thing. All three are in need of money, so they put a horse race/lottery ticket in a drawer beneath the idol and wait for midnight. (The plot point of the ticket remained a bit vague to me, but they wind up with the possibility of splitting 30,000 pounds between them.) As the bells toll 12, a wind blows out Fitzgerald's candles, but she is sure she sees the goddess open her eyes. The rest of the movie follows the stories of the three: Greenstreet is a lawyer who has been embezzling from a rich widow (Rosalind Ivan) and tries to get her to marry him so he won't be found out; Lorre is a small time crook who was tricked (by Robert Shayne) into participating in a robbery which ends in murder; Fitzgerald wants financial independence, hoping to win back her estranged husband (Alan Napier) who is "living in sin" with Marjorie Riorden because Fitzgerald won't give him a divorce--the situation with Napier and Riorden is surprisingly clear given that this is a mainstream Code movie of the 40's.

The moody, almost supernatural tone of the opening gives way to a somber, almost noirish feel, but because none of the three are particularly likeable, none of the stories is all that compelling. Ultimately Lorre, with some help from sweet kid Joan Lorring (who resembles Vivien Leigh), is cleared of charges stemming from the murder, but by the time the three meet again to find out if the ticket is a winner, Greenstreet and Fitzgerald's situations will take turns for the worse. The ending, at least as far as the money goes, is reminiscent of Huston's TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. John Alvin plays a Bob Cratchit-like clerk to Greenstreet; Arthur Shields (Barry Fitzgerald's brother) is a prosecuting attorney. One scene of Lorre in jail has him playing a phonograph record of one of my favorite songs, "I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls." Word has it that Bogart and Mary Astor were originally lined up to play the Lorre and Fitzgerald characters, and they might have been able to give the movie the spark it's missing. Although I like Lorre, as a romantic lead he doesn't quite cut it here.

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