The Dhamma of Johnny West
A UUBu perspective on
by Anne Sharp
I doubt very much that John Huston was a practicing Buddhist--I really haven't looked into this--but there is what a Buddhist would call some very good dhamma in the screenplay of the 1946 film "Three Strangers," for which he shares credit with Howard Koch (the film itself was directed by Jean Negulesco.) This could just be random as there are other things in American culture that without intending to happen to be perfect illustrations of the Buddhist way. The Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to make changes when I can, and to have the wisdom to know the difference," is very close to the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. The Jewish saying "This too shall pass" is totally Buddhist, but my favorite example is the old joke: "Doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do THIS." "So don't do THAT anymore!" Translate that into Sanskrit or Pali and you'd swear the Buddha himself said it. Maybe he did.
John Huston reportedly wrote "Three Strangers" as a starring vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, but when Warner Bros. finally got around to making it Peter Lorre was cast instead, and as usual with Peter once you've seen him play the role you can't imagine anybody else doing it. Though Bogart might have been very good too. Hanging out with Peter during his years at Warner Bros. brought about a tremendous improvement in Bogart's acting skills in my opinion. Note that when it came to filming "Three Strangers" they didn't bother to Germanize the name of the character Johnny West, just because it was Peter rather than Bogart playing him. I like to think Johnny in the film is really named Johannes Oester, but because he's living in London when the story takes place, he's taken to calling himself Johnny because it's easier for the natives to pronounce.
In real life both Peter and Bogart were unfortunately familiar with the realities of addiction. Peter was either using morphine or in some form of treatment or recovery virtually his entire adult life, and Bogart, like many people in his heavy-drinking generation, in many ways fit the profile of a functional alcoholic. Since both of Bogart's parents were morphine addicts, this might have been one of the reasons Bogart bonded so closely with Peter. So either could have taken on the role of Johnny West, who is in an advanced state of alcoholism (blackouts, not eating) with considerable authority. In regards to Buddhist themes in "Three Strangers," the Buddha warned his followers not to use alcoholic beverages and other recreational mind-altering drugs, and poor Johnny is a clear illustration of why.
This piece is written from the perspective of a UUBu, meaning a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church who practices Buddhism (that's me.) The form of Buddhism I follow is the Theravadan tradition, which is light on supernaturalism and heavy on the tenets of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the Buddhist equivalent of the Ten Commandments. There are as many different forms of Buddhism as there are of any other major world religion, so I am speaking only from my own understanding of Theravadan Buddhist practice, filtered through my upbringing in the Unitarian tradition. There are people who relate to the Buddha and Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, the way that Christians relate to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as gods who hear what we say to them and reward or punish us according to what they think we deserve. But from my own non-supernaturalist UU-Bu perspective, the Lord Buddha is a teacher who invented and passed down to us a simple but powerful system for living a good life that has stood the test of time, and Kwan Yin is a beautiful archetypal image symbolizing the kindness, serenity and wisdom that people who practice Buddhism can find in themselves. I should also emphasize that this essay is not meant to get you yourself to practice Buddhism. Certainly nobody in the film "Three Strangers" does. What I'll do is outline the story first, with some necessary spoilers. Then I'll trace the Buddhist fable, as I see it, that's inside.
The film opens with Crystal Shackleford (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald), wearing a clingy jersey gown that shows off her spectacular bottom, luring the outwardly respectable businessman Arbutney (Sydney Greenstreet) to her London flat. Expecting a discreet quickie, Arbutney is shocked to find another man, Johnny West (Peter, naturally), happily drinking Crystal's liquor and waiting for them. Crystal shows them a statue of Kwan Yin and tells them that at midnight, which will come in a few minutes, the Chinese New Year will begin, and according to legend if three people who are strangers to one another make a wish together at this special time, the goddess will grant it. So here they are--what will they wish for?
Money is always a useful thing to have, and Johnny happens to have a ticket for the upcoming sweepstakes, so there's their wish, to have the winning ticket. All three sign their names on the back of the ticket (taking care that the others don't see their signature, so they remain strangers to one another) and agree that if the ticket wins, they'll stake the money on a big horse race that follows the sweepstakes, and if Kwan Yin comes through for them a second time they'll split the money three ways.
As we follow the three strangers in their separate lives, we discover that Crystal is not only a liar and a con artist but a heartless spousal abuser whose husband is fed up and wants a divorce so that he can marry a nice woman who really loves him. Crystal has convinced herself that if she wins the money she can win back her husband. In the meantime, she tricks her husband's lover into believing that he and Crystal are back together and expecting a baby (they're nothing of the kind.)
For Arbutney, the need for money grows from a wish to an absolute panic. He's embezzled funds that were entrusted to him by a wealthy widow in order to invest it in what seemed like a sure thing, but it didn't turn out and now the auditor is about to discover his theft. Arbutney's backup plan is to propose to the widow, thus making her money retrospectively his, but she turns him down. When Johnny's ticket wins the sweepstakes, Arbutney is desperate to get his hands on his share of the money immediately, hoping Johnny and Crystal will overlook their agreement to stake all the money on the horse race.
Johnny is in even bigger trouble than the other strangers. While he was too drunk to remember clearly what was going on (a common situation for Johnny), he witnessed a murder, and the gang that's responsible is hiding him from the police, feeding him liquor to keep him quiet. A young female member of the gang, Icy (Joan Lorring), develops a fondness for him and decides to make him her boyfriend, though Johnny, who's really a kindly and thoughtful man despite his advanced alcoholism, does his best to warn her he's a hopeless loser and really not worth her time. As it turns out, Johnny's wet brain renders him helpless to defend himself when the authorities track him down and blame him for the murder. Meanwhile, there's still the matter of the sweepstakes ticket, which plays out in an ironic manner that's both strikingly Buddhist and what you might expect if you've seen many mid-1940s Warners films featuring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.
Without giving away that final twist, what can we learn from this film in regards to a Buddhist message? Well, certainly each of the three strangers embodies what are serious faults according to Buddhist morality. One of the tenets of the Noble Eightfold Path is that a Buddhist should take no action that causes harm to any living being. Crystal has deliberately hurt her husband and takes pleasure in doing it. Arbutney has abused his client's trust and lost her money in a reckless attempt to enrich himself. Of the three strangers, Johnny is clearly the best of a bad lot, but even so is causing himself terrible harm through his drinking. Note also that Buddhist sexual ethics forbid getting involved with anyone who's already in a relationship. Crystal was unfaithful to her husband, which is one of the reasons he wants a divorce, but because he didn't bother to wait until he was free to arrange for his second marriage, Crystal was able to bamboozle her rival into thinking he wasn't really available after all.
Buddhist teachings have their mystical aspects, but at heart are eminently practical. The Buddha encourages us to be skeptical of our own wishes and desires and to carefully evaluate the whole process of wanting things--what motivates us, and what the possible outcomes will be if we succeed in getting them. When we HAVE to have something, whether it's coercing someone to stay with us against their better judgment, or or stealing somebody else's property, or scoring the next fix, we are inviting needless pain and suffering into our lives. There is already a baseline of misery in this world caused by natural and human-induced disasters, disease, aging, and death, so why add more if we can avoid it?
Johnny is the worst of the three strangers in terms of bondage to desire and the unnecessary suffering it causes, because he is an addict. His entire existence centers around satisfying a craving that is shutting him down as a functioning human being. As he tells Icy, he feels like an amputee with a phantom limb, only it feels to him as though it's part of his psyche that's missing. But realizing that there's something wrong is a necessary step towards making it right. So the potential for a more enlightened way of life is there, when the messy circumstances of his predicament finally shock him into pulling himself together.
"Icy, don't ever get mixed up with a Chinese goddess. It's the worst thing that you can do," Johnny tells her at the end of the film. Well, certainly not the way that Crystal got them all mixed up with her. The lady Kwan Yin is not a slot machine to be jerked in expectation of a payoff. She is a subject for meditation, an embodiment of serenity, compassion and wisdom that we can model ourselves after, if we can only sober up enough to see it.
(c) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.