Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rant: Three Strangers, Indeterminate Stars

Only in the doldrums of a holiday weekend will you find an article like David Freed’s Saturday piece in the Los Angeles Times about the ratings system for old movies. Freed starts by grousing about the three stars his on-screen cable guide gives to Neptune’s Daughter, a 1949 romp starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalban. As if that cast list doesn’t tell you all you need to know.

There are worse crimes against art than an Esther Williams film receiving an unnecessary star. Especially from an aggregator like an on-screen cable guide. (Freed, to his credit, explains how those particular ratings are determined.) The answer, as it so often does, boils down to: consider the source.

As someone who consults Leonard Maltin’s guides on a daily basis, I agree with Freed’s thesis in principle. Plenty of older films are overrated. But that’s not so much because of changing tastes as Sturgeon’s Law; when asked about science fiction, author Theodore Sturgeon replied that 90% of it was lousy, but then 90% of everything is lousy. And Freed is right that some genres, specifically film noir, were regularly underserved by critics.

But overall his article speaks to the contemporary sense of entitlement and instant gratification. “I don’t care about historical perspective. This movie bored me and I want answers!” Besides, who takes the four star system seriously?

Plus I take issue with Freed’s notion of today’s audiences being “jaded, world-weary” (as they’re called in the article) and “sophisticated” (as they’re branded in the headline). A point that’s been on my mind since watching Three Strangers (1946) on Thanksgiving night.

The film was co-written by John Huston and directed by master of melodrama Jean Negulesco. It starts in somewhat shocking fashion – yes, even now – with Geraldine Fitzgerald sauntering down a busy city street, clearly trolling for men. Barrister Sydney Greenstreet picks up on her signals and follows her home, only to find that she’s already got Peter Lorre waiting. Fitzgerald then explains that according to legend the Chinese goddess of luck will, on this night, bless three people – but only if they don’t know each other. Lorre and Greenstreet go along with the deal, with Lorre even donating a sweepstakes ticket to the cause.

They then go their separate ways. The film follows them as they remain strangers to each other but not to us, revealing their every neurosis and psychosis. The tripartite structure is initially distancing, but slowly draws you in. Once Fitzgerald’s true nature is revealed Three Strangers becomes spellbinding, building to an extraordinary climax.

Current audiences would probably hate it. The premise is so clearly a contrivance, and no attempt is made to make its flawed characters likeable. Today’s jaded, world-weary and sophisticated filmgoers would wonder why they should care about people who are desperate, venal and selfish. In other words, human. Three Strangers asks more of its viewers than most movies. It’s hard to convey that in a four star rating system.

Leonard Maltin, for the record, gives it three-and-a-half and calls it “fascinating viewing.” He’s right.