Stranger on the Third Floor

(USA - 1940)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Halton, Charles Waldron
Genre: Crime/Thriller/Film-Noir
Director: Boris Ingster
Screenplay: Frank Partos & Nathanael West
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Composer: Roy Webb

The unreliability of the criminal justice system due to indifferent and lazy, if not outright malicious participants breeds paranoia, fear, irrationality, and madness in what’s considered the original film noir. Struggling upstart reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire), looking for his first break so he can move out of his unconfidential apartment and marry his tenacious girlfriend Jane (William Wyler’s wife Margaret Tallichet), makes his first journalistic breakthrough testifying his true but incredibly circumstantial evidence. To his indifference and Jane’s dismay, merely seeing a man at the scene of the crime is enough evidence to get supposedly rehabilitated con turned cab driver Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.) the chair, as everyone would rather pin the crime on whoever is handy than put forward a legitimate effort. Briggs, who swears innocence, had no reason to murder the man who was kind enough to loan him some money, as he made $5 that day and was about to repay him.

Jane’s disapproval engages Mike’s long idle conscience, causing his imagination to seize control of haunted mind. It begins to run wild upon seeing a mysterious prowler (Peter Lorre) in the apartment complex, as his prig busybody neighbor Mr. Meng (Charles Halton) is remarkably unaware of the disturbance, seemingly impossible given he isn’t providing his obnoxious snoring. Mike’s nervous interior monologue subsides only through a remarkable surrealist nightmare that condenses the entire judicial witch hunt into a series of brief, terrifying sequences where the innocent man is helpless to save himself.

Regular scoldings from his uptight straight-laced neighbor including the classic scene where he barges in at the unseemly hour of 10 P.M. to inform a steadily typing Mike “People who don’t loaf in the daytime don’t have to work at night” lead to an equally hilarious scene where Mike threatens to kill Meng the Merciless for breaking up his subtle Hays Code seduction of Jane just as he’s finally gotten her to take her socks off. Realizing this provides motive and he’s the convenient fall guy for discovering both corpses, Mike begins to see the reality of the nightmare, as he may only be a few steps away from being the innocent man convicted through a cruel twist of what comes around goes around fate.

Always memorable Peter Lorre ostensibly stars as a homeless man running from past torments, essentially reprising his role in Fritz Lang’s M in his brief, largely wordless screen time. Lorre isn’t given enough to work with to be at his greatest, but stands out as the other performances are merely adequate with McGuire’s work reminding me of a low rent version of the performance Ray Milland would go on to give in The Lost Weekend, subbing paranoia for booze.

Stranger on the Third Floor is certainly memorable as a stylish and evocative production. Boris Ingster was predominantly a screenwriter, directing his first of a mere three features. However, he’s backed by a tremendous technical team including soon to be Val Lewton regulars Nicholas Murasaca providing the dark, shadowy, and angular cinematography and Roy Webb composing. No less than Citizen Kane art director Van Nest Polglase does wonders with the sets. With the possible exception of the courthouse, the entire film takes place in and around one little street scene, but it doesn’t matter because it’s so skillfully melded to not only create mood and atmosphere, but also render mental state. They craft a world of temporary insanity where everyone perceives themselves as being put upon then lashes out and/or flees. The expressionist style does a wonderful job of melding the reality of the world they conjure with a nightmare, resulting in a final product that’s far closer to being trapped in a bad dream than most of its successors.

Despite having all the style to be considered a classic, Stranger on the Third Floor falls a bit short due to a rather mediocre script. It's successful up to a point, but suddenly everything falls right into place for the rushed, incredibly convenient ending. Part of the problem, perhaps, is Peter Lorre was only scheduled for two days of shooting. His character lacks not only detail and shading, but characterization, which ultimately renders the finish unsatisfying.



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