Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

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Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). 64 minutes. Directed by Boris Ingster. Starring Peter Lorre (as the Stranger), John McGuire (as Michael Ward), Margaret Tallichet (as Jane), Charles Halton (as Albert Meng), and Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Joe Briggs).

Stranger on the Third Floor is a noir curiosity from 1940, cited by many as the first entry in the genre’s classic period, which spanned roughly from 1940 to 1959. I would say that it stars Peter Lorre, except that he barely appears or even talks in the movie until three quarters have elapsed—and yet Lorre was such an impressive actor at the time that he received top billing nevertheless.

Lorre is the reason to see this movie. He plays the weird and enigmatic Stranger, a curious fellow whom protagonist Michael Ward suspects of murdering a neighbor.  Lorre’s early silent appearances as the Stranger—lurking on the front stoop of Ward’s building, peeking out of a door on Ward’s apartment landing, peering up from underneath a staircase, slinking over the edge of a car—all make use of his lithe, sinewy face and body and showcase his characteristic sleaziness. If anyone is going to be found creeping around a black-and-white crime story from the glory days of film noir, it is Peter Lorre, and Stranger on the Third Floor reinforces his powers of Unheimlichkeit by not having him utter a single word until the film’s penultimate scene. My favorite appearance by him in this movie by far takes place in the long nightmare sequence in the film’s middle section, during which the dreaming protagonist sees Lorre climbing over a sea of empty movie-theater like chairs in a courtroom, coming steadily towards him.  Lorre’s ability to unnerve us by doing something as simple as walking towards the camera is nicely conveyed in this scene.

As for the plot, it is a bit of a mess. Reporter Michael Ward is the star witness at poor Joe Briggs’s murder trial.  After Briggs is convicted of nearly decapitating a coffee shop proprietor, whose body Ward discovered, Ward and his girlfriend Jane have doubts about the defendant’s guilt. Alone back in his apartment after the trial, Ward ruminates about the proceedings in a lengthy voice over.  As he begins to dispute Briggs’s guilt to himself, he speculates on how he, too, could be potentially suspected of murder if his obnoxious neighbor Albert Meng were ever to die, particularly because he has threatened Meng’s life in front of their landlady.  We are treated to a series of flashbacks from his recent past.  While musing, he hears a sound, goes to the hallway to investigate, and sees the Stranger behaving suspiciously on the landing.  Ward returns to his apartment, continues to obsessively trace through these thoughts, and has a horrible dream about being put on trial for Meng’s hypothetical death.  Wouldn’t you know it, when he wakes up, he finds Meng actually dead in the apartment next door.  Convinced that the creepy Stranger (played by Peter Lorre) who has been lurking around those parts is responsible, he goes to the police, but is of course arrested himself as a suspect, having now discovered the bodies of two men killed in exactly the same way. Fortunately his girlfriend Jane does some sleuthing and comes across the Stranger, who is purchasing raw meat to feed to a stray dog. She engages him in conversation, extracts his confession with considerable ease, then when fleeing from him watches as he is conveniently run over by a truck.  A policeman happens to be on the scene and hears the Stranger confess once again as he dies.

The plot of Stranger on the Third Floor is both convoluted and thin.  It may be hard to imagine how such a statement can be true, but consider this: there are many flashbacks and a very complex dream sequence, where even people in the dream appear to have flashbacks or flash-forwards or flash-sideways at various points. Then there is Ward’s tangled voice over.  It is hard to process all of the information that we gather from such sources and maintain a sense of the linear story.  Yet at the same time, what a blissfully convenient plot: Ward just happens to discover the bodies of both men that the Stranger kills, both of whom coincidentally have strong ties to Ward; Ward sees Lorre leaving the building at around the time Meng dies; Jane happens to find the Stranger hanging out at the coffee shop that the characters frequent; he confesses to her within moments of meeting her; he inexplicably confesses a second time to the police who run to the scene of his accident; and most egregiously of all, as Ward and Jane go off to be married at the movie’s conclusion, the taxi driver who picks them up is none other than Briggs, who has been released from jail and happily offers to give them a lift.  As an example of early film noir, the cynical and jaded granddaddy genre of them all, Stranger on the Third Floor has one of the perkiest endings of any entry and is laden with more convenient coincidences than most.

Yet despite the film’s shortcomings, it is definitely a legitimate example of noir, laden with many of noir’s quintessential elements: the deep shadows, the urban landscape, the all-night coffee shops, the cynical reporters, the unjustly accused protagonist and the nightmare trial, the flashbacks, the voice over, the low and diagonal camera angles.  All of these elements speak to an emerging art form that is just in its nascency in a film like this but that is getting a good early try out.  Decidedly absent is the sharp, fast-paced banter of a later film noir like Double Indemnity, the seductive femme fatale of The Lady from Shanghai, or the profound ethical dilemmas of The Third Man.  Stranger on the Third Floor also lacks more developed noir’s fascination with evil and the criminal mind.  Lorre’s Stranger appears to be very simply insane, so disinterested in his guilt that he casually and straightforwardly relates his crimes to Jane as she investigates, and her scrutiny of his character is very brief.  There is ample evidence, however, that even the wrongly accused Michael Ward is tainted, something common to noirs: Ward is guilty of behaving boorishly towards his fellow man, even having threatened his intrusive neighbor’s life and having fantasized out loud about killing him on at least one occasion.

This movie also deliciously focuses in on some small details that a less thoughtful film would not have bothered with: the coffee shop owner Nick explaining to some female customers that the secret to his coffee is the raisin he adds to every cup; Ward complaining as he converts his couch into a bed at night of how tired he is of making and unmaking it; Jane’s portly cigar-smoking boss who dictates a letter to her on the day Ward is arrested, making a tedious edit; the comic shock of Ward’s landlady and the obsequious Meng when they hear Ward’s inconsiderate nighttime typing or see Jane in his apartment on a rainy day without stockings; the Stranger feeding raw meat to the stray dog.  We start to get the sense that in spite of the oppression of the city and the poverty of the boarding houses where these characters live, there is real individuality and spirit in the movie’s dark urban world.

Ultimately, Lorre steals every scene he is in, and without him on screen the movie is much less exciting.  Yet Stranger on the Third Floor is a stylish crime story with many details to recommend it.  If you want to appreciate where film noir came from, you should see it.  If you are a collector of Maltese Falcon-related movies, I have even more cause to recommend it: not only is Peter Lorre common to both films, but Stranger on the Third Floor‘s Joe Briggs is played by Elisha Cook, Jr., Falcon‘s wonderful young Wilmer Cook.

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