Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

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“B” movies are for the most part a thing of the past, with their closest contemporary equivalent being the direct to video market. Then, as now, it serves to showcase talent either not quite ready for “A” level treatment or those whose career has started to wane.

Stranger on the Third Floor is the epitome of the B movie. It presses the envelope between a film and a docu-drama at a tight runtime of a mere 65 minutes.

Many critics feel that Stranger on the Third Floor marks the inception of the film noir genre and it is true that it does incorporate many elements of that slightly later genre. The cinematography and lighting definitely show the dramatic flair as does the urban setting.

Peter Lorre, being the only known star quality name in the cast, gets top billing, which is unfortunately a bit of a misnomer. Lorre doesn’t appear until past the 20 minute mark and then flits eerily about in quick cutaways which are reminiscent of some of his earlier silent film work. It isn’t until the last ten minutes or so that he speaks.

Lorre’s premiere listing in the credits makes one anticipate an entirely different picture than that which plays out, though his limited on screen time may be due to the fact that he only had a few days left on his contract.

The story’s main protagonists are Mike Ward, a young and coming newspaper reporter, played by John McGuire. Second is his girlfriend Jane, played by Margaret Tallichet. As the film opens a diner owner has been killed by having his throat cut and Ward discovers the body, resulting in a big story for him.

Ward’s testimony at trial plays a key role in the conviction of the accused murder, even though no one actually saw the murder. First Jane, and then Ward himself, have doubts on the now convicted murderer’s guilt.

Then Ward finds his neighbor, with whom he has had numerous run-ins, with his throat slashed in the same way. Along the way he sees the Stranger (Lorre) lurking down the hall and confronts him as he runs down the steps. Ward thinks the Stranger killed his neighbor, but the police begin to focus on Ward as he discovered both bodies.

This is where the good part of the film kicks in, with an extended dream sequence of Ward imagining himself wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the two murders. Some would call it noir, others a bit of surrealism, and both may apply.

Much of what now is taken for noir, most notably the lack of detailed sets, is presumed to be a stroke of genius by director Boris Ingster. Perhaps, though it is more likely that this is the result of a limited budget. Several sets are clearly set pieces- in one there is just a bed and stool in an otherwise empty room (i.e. soundstage). Dark lighting also could disguise perhaps some of the budgetary constraints as well so at least some of the atmosphere is budgetary in nature.

He awakens and is shortly thereafter arrested and it looks like reality may come to mirror his dream, but dear Jane finally confirms that the Stranger is the murderer and both Ward and the convicted chap from the first murder are freed.

As disappointing as it is not to see Lorre on screen more, he still almost steals the show with his limited presence. His silent and sneaky slinking around for the brief shots he is in does create a bit of terror and suspense. Between the bulging eyes and facial expressions he steals every shot, though my personal favorites are those where you just see his pale white hand flat against a dark surface- like an apartment door.

Stranger on the Third Floor is almost worth seeing for Lorre alone, and his flippantly casual style of tossing his scarf over his shoulder sums up his performance admirably.

From a plot point of view, there are no real surprises but that isn’t the point. It is made pretty clear from the start that the Stranger is the guilty party. The key thrust of the film is (at least from my perspective) is an allegory on the state of the justice system and how easily an innocent man can be convicted- or presumably the inverse as well.

This has been available from WAC for a while now and though it is very short if you are a real noir aficionado it is a good idea to see where it all (may have) started.

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