The Archivist XXXIII — THREE STRANGERS and MIKE’S MURDER: Other Sides To Film Noir

by Frank Calvillo

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

I can’t think of too many genres that have become more iconic than the films which helped establish them quite like film noir. The many tropes, including the anti-hero protagonist, the entrancing femme fatale and the way film noir was able to transform sprawling metropolis’ such as New York and San Francisco into dark labyrinths, all combined to create what was perhaps the most prominent of genres from the late 30s to the early 50s. When the neo-noir movement happened in the late 70s, the genre saw a revitalization as audiences lapped up the same crime-soaked plots set against modern backgrounds. While most noir entries usually featured recycled plots, once in a while a title came along which dared to change things up a bit. In this edition of The Archivist, we’ve got two titles which successfully reworked the genre’s conventions, while making sure that unmistakable noir stain remained.

John Huston co-wrote this screenplay which stars Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in this tale of greed and fate. On a dark night in London, the beautiful Crystal Shackelford (Fitzgerald) lures the unsuspecting Jerome Arbutny (Greenstreet) and John West (Lorre) to her apartment. The three have never met, but the two men stay and listen to Crystal talk about Kwan Yin, the ancient Chinese idol which sits on her mantle. According to an ancient proverb, at the stroke of midnight on Chinese New Year’s, when three strangers stare at Kwan Yin, a single wish each individual share will come true. The two gentlemen agree to help Crystal put the legend to the test. Using a sweepstakes ticket as the wish, the three agree that if it should win, it should be entered into the horserace and the winnings be divided evenly. As midnight comes and the wish is made, the trio parts company.

It isn’t long before each stranger’s own troubles come to light, including John running to elude the police, Crystal scheming to win back her estranged husband and Jerome trying to cover up his embezzlement from his client’s trust fund. The trio’s situations continue to become more and more frantic as the sweepstakes draws near.

Originally intended as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon (until legal reasons put a stop to such plans), Three Strangers is one of the most addictive noir entries of its time. Not only does it feature three extremely flawed characters in highly desperate situations, but the way it plays with the ideas of luck and chance makes the film all the more intriguing. The mechanics of the plot and each character’s eventual outcome makes Three Strangers a true nail biter, particularly in the case of Greenstreet’s character, which no one can argue is undeserved. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Lorre in particular playing against type in a somewhat sympathetic role. The absence of a central amateur detective and the use of London as a setting may have strayed from the noir formula, yet there’s enough shady activity and overall darkness to make Three Strangers not just a worthwhile noir offering, but truly, one of the finest.

Wanting to create a vehicle for his Urban Cowboy leading lady Debra Winger, writer/director James Bridges crafted this little-seen piece of early 80s noir set against the drug-fueled underworld of L.A.’s entertainment industry. In Mike’s Murder, Winger plays bank employee Betty Parrish, who has been enjoying an on again/off again romance with tennis instructor Mike (Mark Keyloun). When Mike turns up dead, Betty takes off on a trail of trying to figure out who wanted Mike dead and why, all the while discovering a different side to the man she thought she knew.

The brilliance of Mike’s Murder is in Bridges’ decision to reverse the otherwise traditional roles of its main characters. With his charming persona masking a number of dark secrets, Mike easily slips into the male version of the femme fatale, unintentionally luring the innocent Betty into L.A.’s dark underworld. Betty meanwhile makes for one of the genre’s rare female amateur detectives as she is plucked from her life of normality into a world she knows nothing about all for the love of a man she thought she knew. Winger’s role is rather sparse in dialogue, but it doesn’t matter. The amount of emotion the actress gives off through her face, whether she’s exploring Mike’s dark past or mourning the love she’s lost, proves incredibly deep. It’s Winger’s depth and Bridges’ touch, which work to make Mike’s Murder something beyond a standard genre piece.

Bridges’ view of Los Angeles is also notable for his decision to shoot in some of the city’s more nondescript and seedy locations, giving it a somewhat desolate feel. Yet its two specific scenes which earn Mike’s Murder praise as a standout neo-noir. The first is the incredibly tense finale in which Bridges uses wind, shadows and old fashioned paranoia in some of the most effective ways ever put to film. The second is one of the few encounters seen between Betty and Mike, in which the two playfully tease one another over the phone. For some it may be a throwaway scene, but it represents all the beauty that Betty saw in Mike and it makes us mourn for all that she lost.

Bridges originally edited Mike’s Murder in such a way that the events played backward chronologically (years before Memento). When the studio vetoed this decision, Bridges was forced to re-edit his film to its current state. Its tough to gauge just how much more involving Bridges’ film would have been sans studio interference. As it stands however, Mike’s Murder remains a truly haunting neo-noir experience.

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