Stranger on the Third Floor


1h 4m 1940
Stranger on the Third Floor

Brief Synopsis

A newspaperman serves as key witness in a circumstantial murder case.

Film Details

Genre
Crime
Thriller
Film Noir
Release Date
Aug 16, 1940
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 4m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
5,740ft

Synopsis

Reporter Michael Ward sends Joe Briggs to the electric chair by testifying that he saw the unfortunate Briggs fleeing the scene of a murder. Shaken by the verdict and by his fiancée Jane's intuition about Briggs's innocence, Michael returns to his room, where he begins to brood about the events that led up to Briggs's arrest. Lost in his thoughts, Michael recalls his meeting with Meng, his loathsome neighbor, when he notices a sinister stranger in the hallway and chases him from the rooming house. After returning to his room, Michael detects that Meng's snoring has ceased, and begins to fantasize that his neighbor has been murdered and that he will be convicted of the crime on circumstantial evidence. Michael's paranoia continues in his dreams, and he awakens to find that his nightmare has come true and that Meng's throat has been slit. Jane convinces Michael to report the murder to the police, who find Michael's presence at the scene of both murders suspicious and arrest him. Realizing that the only way to prove Michael's innocence is to find the stranger, Jane begins to search for the man. She finds him feeding a stray dog and learns that he has escaped from an insane asylum. Thinking that Jane has come to take him back, the stranger begins to chase her across the street but is hit by an oncoming truck before he can harm her. Before dying, the stranger confesses to the murders, thus exonerating both Michael and Briggs of the crimes.

Film Details

Genre
Crime
Thriller
Film Noir
Release Date
Aug 16, 1940
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 4m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
5,740ft

Articles

Stranger on the Third Floor


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).
BW-64m.

by Jeremy Arnold
Stranger On The Third Floor

Stranger on the Third Floor

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). BW-64m. by Jeremy Arnold

Noir City 2008 Report, Part 3 - The Grand Inquisitor, Stranger on the Third Floor, & The Face Behind the Mask Unveiled at NOIR CITY 2008 in Los Angeles


Peter Lorre got his own night of B noirs over the weekend in wonderful 35mm prints, but before they unspooled, noir fans got a look at a new short film by noir historian and author Eddie Muller. The entire festival is basically Muller's brainchild, and in the years since he started it with the programmers at the American Cinematheque, he has formed the Film Noir Foundation, which does good work to keep these pictures alive and available. His 20-minute short The Grand Inquisitor (2008), based on his own published short story, stars 90-year-old Marsha Hunt, who knows a thing or two about classic noir: among her dozens of credits stretching back to 1935 is Anthony Mann's masterful Raw Deal (1948). Here, she plays a mysterious woman who opens the door of her San Francisco home one day to find a young woman (Leah Dashe) with some questions about her past. Dashe has acquired some old textbooks with cipher markings scrawled on many of the pages which seem to match those of the notorious Zodiac Killer of the 1960s; she has traced the books to Hunt's dead husband and hopes that Hunt can shed some light on this mystery and basically answer the question: was her husband Zodiac?

Hunt initially protests the claims as ludicrous, but slowly we realize that perhaps Dashe is onto something. Since the story is inspired by the world of noir, things inevitably turn darker and more ominous, and soon it's clear that Dashe was foolish not to tell anyone where she was going this day. Hunt looks marvelous at 90 and gives the part her all, right through the disturbing and shocking finale. Hunt was at the screening and took part in a lively Q&A afterward with Muller.

The evening then moved on to the two Peter Lorre movies. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is not as rare as it once was; it pops up on TCM from time to time. Many consider it the first true film noir, and a programming article I previously wrote on its production can be found elsewhere on tcm.com. Seeing it again in such a nice print with a sizable audience was a pleasure. Van Nest Polgase's imaginative production design has great impact on the big screen; the nightmare sequence remains a stunning piece of expressionism which not only visualizes a character's (John McGuire's) paranoia but also makes serious comments on America's imperfect justice system. There are few better-realized dream sequences out there. As a whole, it's an amazing movie considering it runs 64 minutes and was so, so cheaply made.

Peter Lorre made The Face Behind the Mask (1941) soon after Stranger on the Third Floor, and it gives him a full leading-man, romantic role. It's worth remembering that while Lorre tends to be remembered fondly for his character parts in films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, he was by 1940 totally established. Not only had he been a full-fledged star in over a dozen German films, most famously M (1931), he had been top-lining American movies like Mad Love (1935) and the Mr. Moto series since arriving in Hollywood.

He's awfully sympathetic in The Face Behind the Mask as a Hungarian immigrant newly arrived in New York. His character is armed with an appealing mixture of naivete and total enthusiasm for America and the opportunities it provides those willing to work. And Lorre is willing to work. Experienced in both watchmaking and aircraft maintenance, his upbeat personality wins him friends easily, and he takes a job as a dishwasher in the cheap boarding house he moves into. A fire breaks out one night, however, and Lorre is left with a horrendously disfigured face - shown to us a few brief but effective times.

Lorre now can't get work; his face is too horrible for anyone to bear. Desperate for money for plastic surgery, he turns to a life of crime. He is very successful at it and eventually is rolling in dough. His face is too far gone for reconstructive surgery, however, and he must settle for a mask, built by a doctor working from Lorre's passport photo. He continues to conduct robberies until he meets a blind woman (Evelyn Keyes) with whom he falls in love. But when his cohorts kill her (with a bomb meant for Lorre), he gets his revenge in a bizarre finale that finds everyone crash landing in the middle of the Arizona desert and dying painful deaths. Lorre's death is essentially suicide, though he takes the bad guys down with him.

There are other pulpy scenes of violence in this film, including a brutal torture sequence, and Lorre builds much sympathy as we see the world refusing to give him a chance no matter how hard he tries. His journey from optimism to alienation is a bleak and very "noir" one, and the ending is certainly true to what has been established. Lorre spends quite a bit of time before he gets his mask with his back to the camera, or in shadow, his face hidden from us, and as a result his dialogue sounds like voiceover. This has an interesting effect of building subjectivity; the de facto voiceover allows us to enter his psyche in a more direct way, and our sympathy deepens because of it.

Lorre describes his situation at one point as "a horrible nightmare from which I can never awake. " He doesn't.

By Jeremy Arnold

Noir City 2008 Report, Part 3 - The Grand Inquisitor, Stranger on the Third Floor, & The Face Behind the Mask Unveiled at NOIR CITY 2008 in Los Angeles

Peter Lorre got his own night of B noirs over the weekend in wonderful 35mm prints, but before they unspooled, noir fans got a look at a new short film by noir historian and author Eddie Muller. The entire festival is basically Muller's brainchild, and in the years since he started it with the programmers at the American Cinematheque, he has formed the Film Noir Foundation, which does good work to keep these pictures alive and available. His 20-minute short The Grand Inquisitor (2008), based on his own published short story, stars 90-year-old Marsha Hunt, who knows a thing or two about classic noir: among her dozens of credits stretching back to 1935 is Anthony Mann's masterful Raw Deal (1948). Here, she plays a mysterious woman who opens the door of her San Francisco home one day to find a young woman (Leah Dashe) with some questions about her past. Dashe has acquired some old textbooks with cipher markings scrawled on many of the pages which seem to match those of the notorious Zodiac Killer of the 1960s; she has traced the books to Hunt's dead husband and hopes that Hunt can shed some light on this mystery and basically answer the question: was her husband Zodiac? Hunt initially protests the claims as ludicrous, but slowly we realize that perhaps Dashe is onto something. Since the story is inspired by the world of noir, things inevitably turn darker and more ominous, and soon it's clear that Dashe was foolish not to tell anyone where she was going this day. Hunt looks marvelous at 90 and gives the part her all, right through the disturbing and shocking finale. Hunt was at the screening and took part in a lively Q&A afterward with Muller. The evening then moved on to the two Peter Lorre movies. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is not as rare as it once was; it pops up on TCM from time to time. Many consider it the first true film noir, and a programming article I previously wrote on its production can be found elsewhere on tcm.com. Seeing it again in such a nice print with a sizable audience was a pleasure. Van Nest Polgase's imaginative production design has great impact on the big screen; the nightmare sequence remains a stunning piece of expressionism which not only visualizes a character's (John McGuire's) paranoia but also makes serious comments on America's imperfect justice system. There are few better-realized dream sequences out there. As a whole, it's an amazing movie considering it runs 64 minutes and was so, so cheaply made. Peter Lorre made The Face Behind the Mask (1941) soon after Stranger on the Third Floor, and it gives him a full leading-man, romantic role. It's worth remembering that while Lorre tends to be remembered fondly for his character parts in films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, he was by 1940 totally established. Not only had he been a full-fledged star in over a dozen German films, most famously M (1931), he had been top-lining American movies like Mad Love (1935) and the Mr. Moto series since arriving in Hollywood. He's awfully sympathetic in The Face Behind the Mask as a Hungarian immigrant newly arrived in New York. His character is armed with an appealing mixture of naivete and total enthusiasm for America and the opportunities it provides those willing to work. And Lorre is willing to work. Experienced in both watchmaking and aircraft maintenance, his upbeat personality wins him friends easily, and he takes a job as a dishwasher in the cheap boarding house he moves into. A fire breaks out one night, however, and Lorre is left with a horrendously disfigured face - shown to us a few brief but effective times. Lorre now can't get work; his face is too horrible for anyone to bear. Desperate for money for plastic surgery, he turns to a life of crime. He is very successful at it and eventually is rolling in dough. His face is too far gone for reconstructive surgery, however, and he must settle for a mask, built by a doctor working from Lorre's passport photo. He continues to conduct robberies until he meets a blind woman (Evelyn Keyes) with whom he falls in love. But when his cohorts kill her (with a bomb meant for Lorre), he gets his revenge in a bizarre finale that finds everyone crash landing in the middle of the Arizona desert and dying painful deaths. Lorre's death is essentially suicide, though he takes the bad guys down with him. There are other pulpy scenes of violence in this film, including a brutal torture sequence, and Lorre builds much sympathy as we see the world refusing to give him a chance no matter how hard he tries. His journey from optimism to alienation is a bleak and very "noir" one, and the ending is certainly true to what has been established. Lorre spends quite a bit of time before he gets his mask with his back to the camera, or in shadow, his face hidden from us, and as a result his dialogue sounds like voiceover. This has an interesting effect of building subjectivity; the de facto voiceover allows us to enter his psyche in a more direct way, and our sympathy deepens because of it. Lorre describes his situation at one point as "a horrible nightmare from which I can never awake. " He doesn't. By Jeremy Arnold

Quotes

Did you ever want to kill a man?
- Michael Ward
My son, there's murder in every intelligent man's heart.
- Martin
I want a couple of hamburgers... and I'd like them raw.
- The Stranger
Why do they want to lock you up?
- Jane
So they can hurt me. They put you in a shirt with long sleeves and they pour ice water on you.
- The Stranger
They send you to take me back?
- The Stranger
No, who?
- Jane
Don't you know? The people who lock you up.
- The Stranger

Trivia

'Lorre, Peter' owed RKO two days on his contract and was given this role with few scenes and few lines, but received top billing.

Notes

This picture marked writer Boris Ingster's directorial debut. Modern sources comment on the film's innovative use of low key lighting and credit Nathanael West with writing the final version of the screenplay.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1940

Released in United States 1983

Released in United States 1983 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (A "B-Movie" Marathon) April 13 - May 1, 1983.)

Released in United States 1940