THREE STRANGERS. Warners, 1946. Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Joan Lorring, Robert Shayne, Arthur Shields, Rosalind Ivan, Peter Whitney and AlanNapier. Written by John Huston and Howard W.Koch. Directed by Jean Negulesco;

   For my money, the best thing John Huston ever wrote — maybe because he was working from his own story and not adapting someone else’s.

   Whatever the case, this is rich drama, starting with an ancient legend (undoubtedly of Huston’s invention) that if three strangers meet at Midnight on the eve of Chinese New Year and make a wish — just one wish, mind you — to the goddess Kwan Yin, she may open her heart and grant it.

   Here the strangers are Sydney Greenstreet as a respected solicitor, Peter Lorre, a genial drunkard wanted by the police in connection with a murder, and Geraldine Fitzgerald as an obsessive who will do anything to get her estranged husband (Alan Napier) back. To this end she has coaxed the other two to her place and persuaded them to join her in a single wish.

   They pool their wish on a ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes, and…

   And then the movie lets them go their separate ways while they await the results. Sydney starts things off in a lightly humorous vein; he’s handling the finances of a wealthy widow (Rosalind Ivan) who still gets amorous visits from her late husband. Things get serious when he uses some of her money for a risky investment that turns out the way you think it would. Meanwhile….

   Meanwhile, Peter Lorre is holed up in a cheap apartment with burly Peter Whitney, lying low till Robert Shayne’s murder trial is over. It seems Whitney and Shayne pulled a burglary, Shayne shot a cop, and Lorre got drunkenly mixed up in the whole affair. They’re aided by Joan Lorring, who is obviously smitten with Lorre’s lovable drunk, but at a crucial moment, Shayne betrays them, putting all three on the run. And while that’s going on…

   Geraldine Fitzgerald acts out in the best Joan Crawford tradition, alternately seductive and plain-damn crazy as she lies, schemes, and ultimately cuts off her unwilling spouse from everyone but her. Faced with a life in ruins, Alan Napier gets a gun and heads for her apartment, where the three principals have gathered to cheat their fates.

   And that ain’t the half of it.

   Jean Negulesco directs all this with real style, imparting a sense of movement with his camera, even when nothing much is going on, and hiding the cheap sets with tricky camera angles. The headline players are at the top of their form, but what I loved here was the well-written and perfectly-played bit parts, which I attribute to co-writer Howard Koch.

   Yeah, the story is Huston’s but when I look at the wealth of memorable supporting parts in Koch’s oeuvre — Casablanca, Sergeant York, and The 13th Letter, to name a few — I gotta give him credit for enriching the whole thing: from the clerks in Sydney’s law offices to the kindly cop who pinches Lorre, everyone acts like he’s the star and this is his movie. Negulesco lavishes time and close-ups on them, and the actors themselves, perhaps realizing they won’t get many chances like this, come through beautifully. The result is a film rich in detail and richly ironic.

PERSONAL NOTE:   Oddly enough, I have a statue of Kwan Yin around here somewhere, but I’ve never thought to pray to it or even make a wish. And even if I did, I don’t know any strangers.

   “I don’t know any strangers.” Let me think about that one for a minute.