A stranger on the stairwell, a weirdo in the mind.
Stranger on the Third Floor is directed by Boris Ingster and co-written by Frank Partos and Nathanael West. It stars Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet and Elisha Cook Jr. Music is by Roy Webb and cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca.
Michael Ward is a news reporter who is the key witness in a murder trial. His evidence, circumstantial at best, is instrumental in getting a guilty verdict delivered on suspect Joe Briggs (Cook Jr.). When his girlfriend Jane (Tallichet) casts doubt over Briggs’ guilt, and his part in the evidence, Michael becomes haunted by the fact he may have sent an innocent man to death row. Things further compound his troubled mind as a sinister stranger is lurking around his rooming house building……
Often referred to as the first true film noir picture, Stranger on the Third Floor hardly set the cinematic world alight upon its release. With Lorre the draw card barely in it and its production value no more than that of a B movie programmer, it’s not hard to envisage some of those 1940’s critics stroking their beards and pondering how to write about such a film. Aesthetically the film caused some consternation, too, while the snarky aside to the legal system, and the people involved in such, adds some intrigue into the narrative mix. For a film running at just over an hour, it was doing well to make a mark: favourably or otherwise!
The truth is is that at its core, Ingster’s film is no more than a capably acted crime thriller, but what cloaks that core are hugely impressive visuals that paint a skew whiff world of a paranoid mind at work. The script, while light as spoken, does indeed carry cynicism, but this aspect only impacts because of the expressionistic visuals and baroque like imagery. Characters, and the actors playing them, ultimately are playing second fiddle to style over substance, but in this instance it’s ok. With Musuraca weaving his photographic magic around heavy shadows, stilted angles and high contrast framing, film contains one of the greatest dream/nightmare sequences to have ever graced/dominated film noir. This alone makes the film essential viewing for noir enthusiasts.
The ending is all too swift and contrived, distastefully accompanied by the jolly old music that opened up the piece. But again this is forgiven in light of what has gone before it, for now, nothing can be seen in quite the same way. A most interesting and sneaky little picture this one. 7.5/10