Strangeronthethirdfloor

Director: Boris Ingster

Writer: Frank Partos

Country: USA

Runtime: 64 mins

Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles D. Warde, Elisha Cook Jr.

A noteworthy B-movie that is widely credited as being the first true “film noir”

I have always enjoyed old black-and-white Hollywood movies, even those that aren’t terribly good, and it is always a pleasure to discover pictures that I wasn’t previously aware of. Stranger on the Third Floor is a noteworthy, and rather good, B-movie that is now widely credited as being the first true “film noir”.

The film begins with reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) preparing to testify in the trial of Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), who has been accused of murdering a coffee shop proprietor. Ward’s fiance, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), is extremely fretful that Briggs might be innocent, and when he is found guilty Jane’s distress puts something of a strain on her relationship with Ward. Returning home from the trial, Ward notices an odd-looking stranger (Peter Lorre) on the steps of his lodgings. Later, he discovers the stranger inside the building and challenges him, but the man runs away. Aware that he can’t hear the usual snoring from the annoying busybody next door, Ward first begins to worry that he might be dead. Then he falls asleep and dreams that he is being accused of the man’s murder.

Upon waking, he goes into his neighbour’s room and discovers that he has indeed been murdered. Ward’s first inclination is to run, but Jane persuades him to go to the police because the victim was killed in the same way as the coffee shop proprietor, and this connection could get the verdict against Briggs overturned. However, Ward then finds himself suspected and the stranger is nowhere to be found.

Stranger on the Third Floor is a good illustration of how story and plot are not the same thing. The plot here is remarkably simple and not enough to sustain the film by itself. However, the viewer’s interest is sustained principally through Ward’s paranoid interior monologue and the splendid noirish cinematography. The camerawork and lighting was courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, who had already worked on a hundred films by this time, and went on to shoot the celebrated 1947 Gothic thriller Cat People. Other important contributors were Vernon L. Walker for special effects, and Van Nest Polglase for art direction. The highlight of the film is Ward’s dream sequence, which features various distorted perspectives, including huge courtroom interiors, and imposing shadows.

Top billing for the film was given to Peter Lorre, although he is only onscreen for a relatively short period of time. His performance is essentially a reprise of the child killer in Fritz Lang’s classic M. However, he once again gives an impressive demonstration of how easily he can switch between menacing and kindly (in one sequence, he raises our fears by ordering raw burgers in a restaurant, but then it turns out that he wants to feed a stray dog; shortly after this act of compassion he then menaces Jane).

The dramatic finale, when it comes, is perhaps over a little too quickly. I felt that the suspense could have been extended a little further. However, for a B-movie this is definitely above par. Although Stranger on the Third Floor received rather mixed reviews upon release I think this film deserves a rather more positive reevaluation.

Review: 7/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September 2014.

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