Rising reporter Michael Ward is a key witness in the murder trial of young Joe Briggs, who is convicted on circumstantial evidence while swearing innocence. Mike's girl Jane believes in Joe and blames Mike, who (in a remarkable sequence) dreams he is himself convicted of murdering his nosy neighbor. Will his dream come true before Jane can find the real murderer?
Peter Lorre ... The Stranger
John McGuire ... Michael 'Mike' Ward
Margaret Tallichet ... Jane
Charles Waldron ... District Attorney
Elisha Cook Jr. ... Joe Briggs
Charles Halton ... Albert Meng
Ethel Griffies ... Mrs. Kane, Michael's Landlady
Cliff Clark ... Martin
Oscar O'Shea ... The Judge
Alec Craig ... Briggs' Defense Attorney
Otto Hoffman ... Charles Evans, the Police Surgeon
The Stranger On the Third Floor may be the first film noir. It's certainly one of the earliest American pictures that can be defined as such. The story revolves around a young reporter who is responsible for the conviction of an ex-con who, as things turn out, seems not to be a murderer after all. As the film develops the reporter himself becomes a suspect for the murder of a particularly obnoxious neighbor with whom he'd had a number of confrontations. The reporter's girl-friend becomes his savior, and she traps the real killer, Peter Lorre (who else?) and saves the day. The movie is splendidly dark and foreboding, deliberately unrealistic, like an experimental play, and it has a full-scale nightmare, very well-done, in the bargain. It is thematically similar to mostly much later and somewhat more elaborate films of the forties by Siodmak, Lang, Dmytryk and Dassin, and in its modest way it can hold its own with the best of them.
This is a classic B (not a quality-judgment, but a well-defined production level that existed before the legal consent-decree that ended studio ownership of movie theaters in the early 1950's. B-movies were lower-budget features, between 55 and 70 minutes, using second tier talent - rising actors or ex-stars on their way down - designed to play the bottom half of a double-feature with an A-picture. The studios needed to produce a certain number of these pictures to keep their theaters supplied, and the quality was only of second importance.) Very often, the low budget gave the filmmakers a certain freedom, because the studio wouldn't keep very tight control on a production of such relative unimportance. B- movies sometimes served as the canvases for highly innovative directors and photographers. (Note that the talent behind the camera includes both the (uncredited) work on the script by no less than Nathaniel West, author of DAY OF THE LOCUST, and cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, who went on to shoot such atmospheric classics as CAT PEOPLE, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST, and the vastly under-appreciated psychological thriller THE LOCKET.)
The late William K. Everson, a fanatical private film collector and one of the greatest film historians, used to show this picture in his B-movie class at NYU as an example of "Films made on one set." The one set in this case is the street scene, although the staircase of the apartment building is also prominently featured. The street was, of course, a standing set that appeared in many films. But if you watch the film carefully, you'll realize that many of the other settings are hardly more than lighting effects on a bare sound-stage. The so- called "surrealism" of the film is a triumph of turning low-budget necessity into an effective style.
As to the claim that it's the first film noir, that's pretty questionable. Film noir really was born in France in the late 30's (there's a reason why the term is French). "Le Jour Se Leve" is probably the best-known example. It was characterized by the dark settings as well as the dark pessimism of its mood, using shadows to separate people, and to fragment the image of the individual. This is certainly an early American film noir, once again because of the spareness of budget forced the use of shadows to hide the lack sets.
This is a very enjoyable, effective thriller, taking us from a rather mundane, plausible reality into a wild nightmare. Lorre's brief appearances become the engine of the fears, that frightening presence you expect to find in every shadow.
The Film Noir Encyclopeia lists Stranger as the first true film noir. It's not hard to see why. The lengthy interior dialog, the grotesque dream sequence, and the expressionist lighting, all bespeak the arrival of a noir universe. Over the next ten or so years, this European style would encompass a number of film genres, seeping even into that most American of all, the Western ("Blood on the Moon", "Roughshod", et al.). I can only imagine how 1940's audiences greeted this abrupt departure on first showing.
Except for Lorre, it's a no-name cast, although Tallichet makes for a charming leading lady with a captivating smile. The absence of a familiar face (John McGuire) in the male lead actually helps. Instead of seeing a celebrity in a starring role, we see an unknown that might even be us. And so, both he and we are drawn deeper into a nightmarish web of guilt. Notice how the lighting becomes steadily darker as McGuire's anguish deepens, with shadows that are almost all appropriately angular and threatening. Also, note director Ingster's very real feel for the ethnic vibrancy of a New York street even though it's recreated on an RKO sound stage. This sense of a community life outside the third floor makes for an interesting contrast with McGuire's growing inward turn.
Too bad the script fails to match the visuals in imagination and stylishness. It's really pretty conventional, except for the nicely ironical twist of having the jury-trial deficiencies turned back upon McGuire in the dream sequence. Good thing they had Lorre outfitted with buck teeth and doing an exquisitely loony menace, because the climax itself is very unimaginatively staged. It could have come from a thousand other more ordinary films. Anyway, for fans of noir and movie historians, this obscure little production remains essential and entertaining viewing.