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Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), an obscure B movie from RKO Studios, has its place in movie history as the first film noir. More than just a possible influence on the flood of dark, urban crime dramas about to follow en masse (as a B film, its "influence" on anyone at the time is debatable), it marked, as author Robert Porfirio has written, "a distinct break in style and substance with the preceding mystery, crime, detection and horror films of the 1930s." In other words, it looked radically new. Its extraordinary look and tone are the product of stylized sets, bizarre angles and lighting, and a powerful blurring of dream and reality - qualities strongly influenced by German expressionist films of the 1920s.
The script by Frank Partos (and, some say, an uncredited Nathanael West) centers on a reporter (John McGuire) who discovers a murder and whose testimony soon condemns an ex-con (Elisha Cook, Jr.) via a legal system shown to be corrupt. McGuire feels guilty and starts to investigate the crime further on his own, eventually finding himself the suspect in a second killing. The story is essentially about paranoia, and this theme (not to mention the Germanic influence) reaches its peak during an extended, stylized dream sequence that feels like something out of Dostoyevsky, in which McGuire imagines his own conviction and execution for a crime he did not commit. Writing in their book Kings of the Bs, Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn have called this sequence "alive with subconscious desires, seething with repressions, awash with pent-up hatred, and constructed from the nightmarish circumstances of the character's real situation. [It has] strong contrasts in lighting, angular shadow patterns, and distorted, emblematic architecture; in short, a kind of total stylization that manages to be both extremely evocative and somewhat theatrical."
As McCarthy and Flynn further point out, the movie is bold in more ways than just in its look: "It is extremely audacious in terms of what it seeks to say about American society...The trial of the ex-con is a vicious rendering of the American legal system hard at work on an impoverished victim." Indeed, forces of order like the police and judges are presented as cruel, and "the sinister role of police and prosecutors in obtaining confessions and convictions [are] hallmarks of the hard-boiled literature that paralleled and predicted what we call film noir."
First-time Russian director Boris Ingster was a former writer and future television producer. Never again would he make anything as notable or striking. He was helped here by a team of true artists. Cameraman Nick Musuraca had already shot over 100 films and would go on to shoot Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), and Clash by Night (1952), among other notable titles. The special effects by Vernon L. Walker are amazing considering the film's low budget, and Van Nest Polglase's art direction contributes mightily to the claustrophobic feel of the movie. One of the most influential production designers in American cinema, with King Kong (1933) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) to his credit, Polglase would soon begin designing the sets for Citizen Kane (1941). RKO house composer Roy Webb's score also does much to create the mood. Webb would later rework some of his themes here for Murder, My Sweet (1944).
Receiving top billing is Peter Lorre even though he has very little screen time. Seen as a fleeting figure in a long, white scarf, he has no dialogue until the end but is a memorable presence. His role recalls M (1931), an important noir precursor, though by this time he looked thinner and more graceful. For Lorre, a Warner Brothers contract and The Maltese Falcon (1941) were right around the corner.
Unsurprisingly for a B picture, critics at the time were generally loathe to see Stranger on the Third Floor's unusual look as an artistic achievement. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther dismissed it as a "pile [of] sound effects and tricked-up photography." And reviewer P.S. Harrison, after declaring the film "too harrowing" for mass appeal, wrote, "at its conclusion, one feels as if one had gone through a nightmare." Little did Harrison know that that's not a bad description of film noir!
Producer: Lee S. Marcus
Director: Boris Ingster
Screenplay: Frank Partos
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editing: Harry Marker
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Peter Lorre (The Stranger), John McGuire (Michael Ward), Margaret Tallichet (Jane), Charles Waldron (District Attorney), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Joe Briggs), Charles Halton (Albert Meng).
by Jeremy Arnold