The wrong guy is convicted of a murder…
Generally viewed as the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, an RKO b-movie of only 64 minutes is a landmark film in a number of respects. The influence of a new generation of European expatriates and of German expressionism in the genesis of film noir is clearly evident. The screenplay is by Austro-Hungarian, Frank Partos, the director is Latvian émigré Boris Ingster, and photography is by the cult noir cinematographer, Italian-born Nicholas Musuraca.
With b-actors as leads, John McGuire as the reporter Mike Ward, and Margaret Tallichet, as his girl-friend Jane, the movie is propelled by the intelligence of the script, the strength of the direction and cinematography, and excellent turns by Peter Lorre as the Stranger and Elisha Cook Jr. as the taxi-driver accused of murder.
Between the cheesy opening and closing scenes is a tight claustrophobic thriller, where fear and paranoia is deftly portrayed both in reality and oneiristically. The nightmare sequence in this picture has to be the best dream-scape ever produced by Hollywood.
Here we have the strongest evidence supporting the thesis set out in the seminal book on film noir, A Panorama of American Film Noir, published in France in 1955, by authors Borde and Chaumeton, that films noir appeared with the emergence of a wider awareness of psychoanalysis and its motifs in America in the early 1940’s. Their analyses of their canon of the first big three post-war noirs, are centred on the films’ dream-like qualities and the emergence of protagonists with pronounced psychoses: The Big Sleep (1945), Gilda (1946), and The Lady From Shanghai (1947).
Ironically, Stranger on the Third Floor is not even mentioned by Borde and Chaumeton.
In this proto-noir, we see explored the role of the subconscious, where reporter Mike, whose testimony sways the jury, starts to question the guilt of the condemned taxi-driver, after his girl-friend Jane tells him she has a feeling that the jury has condemned an innocent man. This doubt then feeds into Mike’s paranoia about the mysterious stranger he encounters in his boarding house, and a guilt-fuelled nightmare about the fate of an obnoxious neighbor where his own sanity is put on trial.
Ingster and Musucara, and associate art director, Albert D’Agostini, as in all the great b-noirs, use set-bound budget constraints as brilliant artifice. The Caligari-like sets and the necessary noir lighting make the dream sequence profoundly surreal and compelling. The climax towards the end of the film on a tenement street set late at night builds and sustains the fear and tension in a way that even in a big-budget movie would be hard to emulate.
This picture is a revelation and is testimony to the greatness of the b-movies of the classic noir cycle. The following slideshow of frames from the movie are compelling artefacts of themselves.