Boris Ingster, 1940
Starring: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr.
A young couple – reporter Mike and his fiancée Jane – are hoping to get married, but must wait until Mike makes more money. His big break comes when he witnesses a murder and is able to identify the killer. The man – Joe Briggs – swears passionately that he is innocent, but he’s ignored. Mike’s journalism career takes off and he and Jane can marry, but she questions whether or not Joe is actually the killer. Mike is plunged into a nightmare of guilt, exacerbated by tension in his boarding house, where he has no privacy and is harassed by a particularly priggish neighbor. Soon that neighbor is killed in the same way as the first murder Mike witnessed. He sees a strange man fleeing the scene, but because he can’t give any details to the police, he is arrested for his neighbor’s murder. Jane must try to prove his innocence and begins a search for the stranger Mike saw on the third floor.
This film from RKO Radio Pictures contains elements of the horror film and the psychological melodrama, but is widely regarded as the first noir film. It is one of the earliest films to combine numerous elements that would become associated with noir: a running voice over from the main character, highly stylized visuals influenced by German expressionism, unlikable characters that all fit in a moral gray area, dreams, flashbacks, shots of a highly symbolic staircase, and odd camera angles. The film is set in the city, a place of fear and paranoia. It’s also an oppressive place, represented in the neighbor and landlady who attempt to control Mike’s behavior. It is also a futile place, expressed in the ineffectual police and unfair justice system.
As with later noir films, fate seems to have a heavy sway here: Mike just happens to witness both murders, though they are essentially unrelated. Jane also just happens to find the titular stranger, though she has never seen him and only has a loose description. The film is fundamentally about mistaken identity and problems with seeing, another common element of noir. Early on, Jane doesn’t recognize her fiancé when he meets her for lunch, foreshadowing the events to come. Mike witnesses and identifies the wrong man, but when he finally sees the real murderer, he has no clue about the man’s identity and does not see him again.
Stranger on the Third Floor is certainly flawed. It has a basic, unimpressive plot, and uses some tropes from earlier, more comedic detective films. It falls out of step with film noir by having a happy ending, where Mike’s guilt is exonerated and he and Jane are ready to be married. Unfortunately, Mike is a largely unlikable character prone to bouts of moodiness and anger, something that would also haunt later noir antiheroes. He’s just not a compelling, complicated, or developed enough of a character to really be considered an antihero. The lack of privacy in the apartment building seems to drive Mike to the brink of sanity, though this instability does not make him more sympathetic. He is quick to point the blame at a stranger just to get ahead, and is consumed by rage and guilt in equal measures, railing impotently against the world around him.
The plot device where an innocent young woman has to try to prove her neurotic boyfriend’s innocence would be used again in noir and the “wrong man” theme is certainly not a new one, though it would be used to best effect by Hitchcock. Nearly all the characters are exaggerated, shuffling towards hysteria, corruption, incompetence, or just general unpleasantness. The judge, jury, lawyers, and policemen are all presented as utterly useless – the cops can’t put together that the murders are related and one juryman falls asleep in the courtroom.
Despite these issues, there are two key elements that make this well worth watching and an ideal contender for first noir film. First and foremost is Mike’s dream sequence, which occurs about midway through. He has a lengthy nightmare that he has killed the neighbor and is arrested, tried, found guilty, sent to prison, and executed. It is a stylish, Kafkaesque affair full of shadows, oppressive shots of bars and fences, tilted camera angles, and a terrifying courtroom scene.
Essentially two people are responsible for this – cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and designer Van Nest Polglase. Italian cinematographer Musuraca was perhaps the most important figure to work on Stranger on the Third Floor and through it, he influenced the future style of noir. Musuraca had worked on numerous films before this, but really began experimenting here. He went on to develop his style in Val Lewton’s Cat People and The Seventh Victim, horror-noir hybrid The Spiral Staircase, as well as noir films The Locket, Clash by Night, The Blue Gardenia, and more. He also shot one of the most iconic noir films ever made, Out of the Past.
Van Nest Polglase (I know his name is wild, but he’s just a New Yorker) was responsible for art direction here, just before going to work on Citizen Kane a year later, a film that influenced much noir style. He would also work on the similarly styled The Devil and Daniel Webster, Gilda, and Suspicion. Though much of the film is shadowy and stylish, Polglase and Musuraca’s work on the dream sequence made it one of the most memorable in Hollywood history. This impressive, disorienting sequence is the centerpiece of the film and feels like a combination of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Orson Welles’ The Trail, and Hitchcock’s Spellbound, though of course the latter two films came after Stranger on the Third Floor and were likely influenced by it.
The second standout element of Stranger on the Third Floor is the appearance of the great Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. He got his start working on the stage in Germany and starring as a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s seminal M (1931). He made a few more crime/horror films in the U.S. – Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and the highly underrated Mad Love (1935) – before starring in 8 films in the Mr. Moto series in just two years, forever linking himself with cult cinema and B-movies. He appeared in Stranger on the Third Floor just a year before his breakout U.S. performance in The Maltese Falcon alongside Humphrey Bogart. Though he is only in Stranger on the Third Floor for about 10 minutes – he owed a few days of work to RKO – he completes steals the film and deliver’s its strongest performance. His “stranger” is similar to the child killer in M: isolated from the world by the city itself and slipping into madness because of this loneliness, violent and dangerous, but also wholly tragic and sympathetic.
The other performances in the film aren’t particularly memorable. Lead John McGuire had his biggest starring role here and though he has numerous acting credits, the majority of his roles went uncredited. It’s really a shame, because he was in everything from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), British horror anthology Dead of Night (1945), noir films He Walked by Night (1948) and Border Incident (1949), and more. By the early ‘50s, he gave up on his career. Leading lady Margaret Tallichet has a similarly unrecognizable name, though she retired to raise a family after just a handful of films. Other B-grade noir and horror actors also appear, such as Charles Waldron (The Big Sleep), Charles Halton (They Drive By Night, It’s a Wonderful Life), Ethel Griffies (The Birds), and Oscar O’Shea (The Mummy’s Ghost).
A final key player is Elisha Cook Jr as the wrongly convicted killer. In many ways, Cook Jr is the “everyman” of noir, which says a lot about the genre. He generally played a diminutive, blue collar worker or low-level grafter with a sense of honor whose life goes wrong at nearly every possible turn. Cook Jr was in more than 200 films throughout his life, many of them B-grade noir or horror films, including The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, Phantom Lady, Dillinger, The Big Sleep, The Killing, House on Haunted Hill, The Haunted Palace, and Rosemary’s Baby.
As with many noir and horror films, this was an international production. Latvian producer Boris Ingster (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) only directed three films, of which Stranger on the Third Floor was the first. Another is the little seen noir Southside 1-1000 (1950). Hungarian screenwriter Frank Partos also wrote John Brahm’s Rio (1939), an early blend of horror and crime starring Basil Rathbone, as well as one of the most memorable horror films of the ‘40s, The Uninvited (1944), and a later noir, The House on Telegraph Hill (1951).
This was something of a dry run for a number of future noir notables. In addition to Lorre, Musuraca, and Cook Jr, composer Roy Webb went on to score noir films Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, The Locket, Hitchcock’s Notorious, The Spiral Staircase, and the seminal Out of the Past, as well as a number of Val Lewton’s horror films and curios like I Married a Witch. He often worked with Musuraca.
Stranger on the Third Floor is famously not available on DVD, though there is a DVD-R available from Warner Archive, which you can get from Amazon. It’s also available on Amazon streaming, which is how I watched it. The picture quality was surprisingly decent, though I’d love to see a properly restored DVD or Blu-ray release. This is a must see for fans of noir, early mystery films, or Peter Lorre. It’s not necessarily a critical noir feature, but fans of the genre should seek it out because of its role as one of the first.