Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stubs - Stranger on the Third Floor

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) Starring: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet and Charles Waldron. Directed by Boris Ingster. Produced by Lee Marcus. Story and Screenplay by Frank Partos. Run Time: 63 minutes. Black and White. US. Film Noir, Thriller.

Stranger on the Third Floor is considered by many to the first true film noir movie, the stylized subgenre of crime drama, featuring low angles, Dutch (tilted) angles, heavy shadows, urban settings, flashbacks, narration and dark themed plots. Rooted visually in the tradition of German Expressionism, film noirs are also usually made on a small budget, making up for what it can’t afford in talent and writing with its visual panache.

Mike (John McGuire) and Jane (Margaret Tallichet) are a young couple, very much in love, who meet for breakfast every morning at a local drug store lunch counter. They talk about getting married when Mike, a reporter, gets his big break. That break comes when Mike, on his way home from work one night, is witness to the murder of Nick, a neighborhood coffee shop proprietor. Mike sees Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) standing over Nick’s body at the open cash register. Nick’s neck has been slashed. Joe runs when he sees Mike and the police catch him with a packed bag before he can make good on his escape. Mike not only is a witness for the prosecution, he also gets a byline out of the incident and a pay raise.

Justice moves quickly in this film, as it seems Mike is on the witness stand almost immediately after the crime. While Mike didn’t actually witness the murder, his testimony is enough to get Joe convicted and sentenced to death for the murder. Jane, though, feels odd that Mike is responsible for what happened to Joe, but Mike is more interested in his career than justice.

Back home in his one room apartment, Mike is anxious to get out of there. Not only does he have a nosey neighbor who snores, Albert Meng (Charles Halton, best known as the bank examiner in It’s A Wonderful Life), but a landlady (Ethel Griffies) who doesn’t mind busting into Mike’s apartment unannounced. On his way to the shared bathroom, Mike sees a Stranger (Peter Lorre), a bug-eyed, thick-lipped man, wearing a long white scarf, who hides out in the shadows. Mike chases him out of the apartment house, but the man gets away.

It is only then that Mike notices that he can’t hear Meng’s snoring. Mike jumps to the conclusion, later proven correct, that Meng has been murdered. Mike frets about what to do. Based on his past run-ins with Meng as witnessed by the landlady, Mike would be a prime suspect in the murder. In flashbacks, Mike reveals that Meng got him into trouble for bringing Jane up to his room in a rainstorm and that he once told a colleague, Martin (Cliff Clark) that he wanted to kill Meng.

When he goes to check on Meng, Mike discovers that he is indeed, dead, his neck slit. In a panic, Mike packs a bag, but stops himself. He goes downstairs to the public phone and calls Jane, who agrees to meet him in the park. She convinces Mike to call the police. They are already there when Mike returns home. He tells the police detective investigating the murder about the stranger he saw. Since Meng’s murder was so similar to Nick’s, he makes the detective wake up the District Attorney (Charles Waldron) to tell him that the murders are connected and that Briggs is innocent. But the DA makes another connection, that both murders were discovered by the same man, and has Mike arrested.

Jane, though, goes out looking for the stranger. After looking all afternoon and evening, she stumbles across him only recognizing him when he puts on the white scarf. It is obvious that the man is deranged, but Jane tries to find out where he lives. She stops at a boarding house to call the police, but the landlady there will have no part of her charade. Thinking that Jane has been sent to take him back, the Stranger starts to strangle her on the front steps, but she manages to escape. She runs across the street and he follows, only to be run over by a truck. Just before he dies, the stranger confesses to a policeman that he committed the two murders.

That is enough to free Mike from prison and he returns to the drug store and to Jane. On their way to get married, they are offered a complimentary ride in a taxi driven by the newly freed Joe Briggs.

Peter Lorre, who got his big break in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) gets top billing in this film, despite only being in a handful of scenes and only speaking a few lines of dialogue. He apparently owed RKO Pictures two day’s work, which explains his limited participation in the film. Lorre, who had already appeared in a series of Mr. Moto films, would go on to be one of the great character actors in Hollywood. Perhaps his best-known role is Signor Ugarte in 1941s Casablanca.

This film has low-budget B-picture written all over it. Both John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet are so-so actors at best. The plot is both convoluted and slight and the action is mostly unbelievable, which may explain why the film is not the best loved or best remembered of the film noirs made. Being first does not always mean best.

What the film may lack in acting and story it makes up for with the use of a cookaloris. This stylistic touch lends the movie the feel of a German expressionist film of the 1920s and 30s and it is used, bordering on over used, throughout Stranger on the Third Floor.

It is always interesting to see the first example of a genre and to notice how it evolved over time. While certainly not a great movie, Stranger on the Third Floor has all the earmarks of film noir which led to such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Out of the Past (1947) to name but a few.

Stranger on the Third Floor is worth watching if you’re a fan, like me, of film noir and want to see how the genre came into being.

Stranger on the Third Floor is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

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