Stranger on the Third Floor

So far my Hardboiled Hangover foray into the world of film noir has turned up some pretty paranoid pictures. Typically these disquieting films were reserved for the late WWII period and the post-war years when several factors led to an anxious nation. So where the hell did Boris Ingster’s 1940 pitch black thriller Stranger on the Third Floor Come from?! This is one dark sonsabitch spearheaded with disturbed performances from John McGuire and the almighty Peter Lorre, and some of the most striking cinematography I’ve seen in a while. Who’s the Stranger on the Third Floor? Short answer: one creepy ass dude. Long answer: hit the jump.

Mike Ward (John McGuire) is on his grind, wearing his souls thin trying to make it as a journalist. His big break finally comes when he witnesses the gruesome murder (near decapitation) of a diner owner. He gets his first byline, a $12 raise, and gets to be the star witness in the trial of Joe Briggs – played by perpetual loser, Elisha Cook, Jr. All of this helps Mike become the talk of the town and the envy of all his pressroom buddies.

The only one not thrilled over Mike’s newfound luck is his fiance, Jane (Margaret Tallichet). She’s shook to the core watching Briggs’ desperate testimony, his cries of innocence. By sending Briggs to the chair, Jane feels like there’s going to be a shadow constantly hovering over their oncoming marriage. Briggs death = their gain.

His girl’s doubt begins to infect Mike. What if he did send an innocent man to fry? I mean, he just saw Briggs in the diner, not actually kill the man…

Mike slumps back to his tenement, where he spots a mysterious figure enter his neighbor’s apartment. Mike hides in the dark stairwell until he sees the stranger exit. But now Mike can’t hear his neighbor’s trademark snore…did the stranger kill him? Angst-ridden and paranoid, Mike falls asleep and what follows is a thing of darkly stylized beauty and brutality.

It’s a hallucinatory dream sequence in which Mike is found guilty for his neighbor’s death and put to the electric chair, strapped down howling his innocence. Prison bars consume the light. A tremendous, black shadow of a Lady Justice statue hovers over the trial. There’s so much style here to consume. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca and art direction of Van Nest Polglase in this sequence laid down the German expressionistic aesthetics that would become the standard for noir. Citizen Kane is typically cited as the visual progenitor of the genre, but Stranger on the Third Floor did it a year before. Van Nest Polglase worked on both films, and it’s clear with Citizen Kane that he was working on a bigger stage with a fatter budget, but after watching Stranger on the Third Floor, it’s tough not to spout how influential this bad bitch was at the time.

Peter Lorre, fresh of the string of Mr. Moto films plays the titular stranger – a man described as someone with “protruding eyes and a long white scarf.” They enhanced his menacing appearance by giving him these awful false teeth that resemble those fake hillbilly chompers you can get from a gumball machine. He lurks through the film like a reptile in the shadows. And when he finally opens his mouth, that wonderfully unassuming voice crawls under your skin. He’s like a beautiful goblin who managed to infiltrate the Hollywood system somehow.

Latvian-born filmmaker Boris Ingster made a minor splash when he arrived in the U.S. in 1940 and delivered the B-noir Stranger on the Third Floor. He didn’t direct a film for another decade, turning his talents to the writing room instead. He directed one more noir, Southside 1-1000, then turned producer for the rest of his career. Stranger on the Third Floor is unforgettable enough to get him in the annals of Noir History.

Although there is a happy ending here devoid of the moral code b.s. later noirs would ride or die by, when the curtain falls there has been so much paranoia, anxiety, and angst witnessed on the screen that any tidying up fails to wash away the dirty feeling in your mouth. Stranger on the Third Floor is a wholly unique anomaly among the early prewar noirs. You can check the whole horror show out on YouTube. I suggest you do.

Patrick Cooper

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