Film Score: Roy Webb Cinematography: Nicholas Musurace
Starring: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet and Charles Halton
The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, but it’s an uncomfortable starting point because that film really isn’t a noir film, as such. A better case could actually be made for this RKO film from the previous year. Stranger on the Third Floor seems to use almost every noir cliché in the book, from chiaroscuro lighting and a moving camera, flashback and dream sequences, to voice over and an investigation montage. Had it been made five years later it would almost certainly be knocked as a second-rate noir thriller for that very reason. But there has to be due credit given to the fact that the film was made prior to any of the classic noirs of the period and so it must be reassessed in those terms. This was Boris Ingerster’s first film as a director in America, after working with Serge Eisenstein in Russia and emigrating at the beginning of the war. His understanding of montage and lighting is certainly solid and seemingly influential, as it would show up in hundreds of films over the next decade. While another European immigrant, Peter Lorre, is given top billing, his role is fairly small. After having played out his character in the Mr. Moto films for 20th Century Fox, his agent was able to get him a two-picture deal at RKO, and this film was followed by a bit part in a Kay Kyser horror comedy with Boris Karloff.
The film begins at a lunch counter with John McGuire meeting his fiancé Margaret Tallichet and telling her about the new apartment he wants to rent for the two of them. He’s a beat reporter who witnessed a murder and was able to get himself a raise by writing about it for the paper. At the trial he says he saw Elisha Cook Jr. standing over the body of the dead man and an open cash register in a diner, and Cook ran away after being spotted. But McGuire never witnessed the actual killing. The case is much too open and shut for Tallichet, and she worries Cook didn’t really do it, especially when McGuire is the chief witness for the state. So when the guilty verdict comes in, McGuire isn’t very happy when Tallichet threatens to break things off. He walks around for a while, arguing with himself in voice over, and runs into Peter Lorre sitting on the front stoop of his ratty apartment building--which just happens to be across the street from the scene of the murder. Charles Halton, the bank inspector from It’s a Wonderful Life, plays McGuire’s annoying next door neighbor who complains to the landlady when he types and night, and then snores so loud it keeps McGuire awake. When McGuire catches Lorre on his floor trying to hide, then gets away when he chases him, he notices Halton isn’t snoring any more. Then he begins to wonder what will happen if Halton is found murdered. No one saw Lorre, but plenty of people know McGuire hated Halton, and suddenly he feels as if he’s in the same situation as Cook and is haunted by a nightmare in which he’s convicted of murder.
Of course, when McGuire finally gets up the courage to check he discovers that Halton is dead, and he wants to run just like Cook did. It’s only when he’s talking about it with Tallichet that he gets the idea that both murders were committed by the same man, Peter Lorre, and his only chance of being cleared is to catch the murderer himself. RKO’s actors were never great the way they were at the other studios, and usually appear fairly wooden onscreen. John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet are no exception. But McGuire does some nice work anyway, when he becomes obsessed by the notion that everyone will think he’s guilty. Peter Lorre has a small role, and no dialogue at all until the final scene. He’s very good in it, but a tad derivative of his work in Fritz Lang’s M that he made in Germany a decade earlier. In the screenplay, written by Frank Partos from an original story idea of his, Lorre’s more unsavory qualities were toned down and his humane qualities played up. Partos was also given help in the writing by none other than Nathanael West, whose novel Day of the Locust is a classic of American literature and criticism of Hollywood. There are also a number of character actors that crop up, the most familiar face being that of Herb Vigran as a reporter in the courthouse bull pen.
But it’s the look of the film that is the real draw. The moving camera work by Nicholas Musurace, particularly in the courthouse and on the streets, is terrific. Wonderfully deep shadows also accompany the camerawork and make for an explicit connection to the kind of noir films the studio would specialize during the war. Much of the middle third of the film is shown in flashbacks, but even more impressive is the long dream sequence in which much of the courtroom and jail is suggested through light and shadow. The montage in which Tallichet goes around asking everyone in the neighborhood if they’ve seen Lorre is also exceptionally done. In fact, when the film was originally released the critics felt that it was too “arty” and it never really gained an audience. Today, however, it is recognized as the beginning of a movement. The music, by RKO composer Roy Webb, is below his usual level melodic invention and that’s another aspect of the film that fails to elevate it. It’s not a very sterling example of the genre, but in retrospect it’s a clearly delineated beginning of what would come to be called film noir. Though it’s not a great film, Stranger on the Third Floor has much to recommend it and is worthy of seeking out if for no other reason than its place in film history.