Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.
Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.
While this is the film’s signature sequence and the first-time director’s announcement of his arrival (largely unheeded, apparently, as Ingster only directed a couple of subsequent films and settled into the film and TV industry as screenwriter and producer), what makes this a film noir is the “real world” nightmare that this dream sequence simply magnifies. The opening courtroom scene is a travesty of justice: a judge drifting into daydreams prompted by the defense attorney to wake up a snoring juror while a cynical press room of a boy’s club of opportunists care less about justice than headlines. As doubts creep into Mike’s moral certainty, prompted by the purely emotional reaction of his fiancée, Jane (Margaret Tallichet, soon to become Mrs. William Wyler), darkness falls over the film and Mike wanders from one pool of illumination to another. The highly theatrical lighting of the dream sequence jumps out at the viewer but it’s merely the most exaggerated expression of the increasingly shadowy style that has been building through the film.
The social atmosphere of this urban neighborhood of rooming houses and lunch counters is just as evocative. Innocuous by day, this otherwise familiar city street set empties out into an ominous stage for busybodies, hostile landladies and one particularly odd-looking man: Peter Lorre, thin and weary, looking like a cross between a little boy lost and a wandering war refugee: at once harmless and threatening, suspicious and trusting, kind and ferociously defensive. Mike’s neighbor Mr. Meng, an elderly busybody played with a sanctimonious sneer by Charles Halton, is a model in hypocrisy who leers at the pretty girls at the corner lunch counter and then barges in on Mike when he has a girl in his room with the landlady as his shrewish collaborator in moral policing.
You could say that this oppressive, hypocritically judgmental rooming house existence drives Mike to his wit’s end, but as he flashes back on his run-ins with his snooping tattletale of a neighbor we are introduced to a pathology that goes beyond angry threats to an interfering old man who hides his sexual frustration under a pose of moralizing superiority. “Did you ever want to kill a man?” he asks his veteran newsman colleague over dinner, his gaze looking off as if imagining just how he might do in this holier-than-thou neighbor, and then muses over the satisfaction of cutting his throat. “My son, there’s murder in every intelligent man’s heart,” proclaims his buddy, but even this cynical old reporter is disturbed by Mike’s obsessive hatred of Meng. When Mike has an unnerving premonition that Meng, a snorer who has suddenly gone silent since the appearance of the Strange on the Third Floor, is dead, it’s not pangs of guilt he feels. It’s the fear that all the evidence points to him. And maybe just a little that this mysterious stranger is fulfilling his darkest desires, just as the original murder trial answered his prayers for success.
The fear of this doppelganger reaches its climax as girlfriend Jane goes searching for the stranger that Mike spied first on the stoop and then in the rooming house, scurrying down the stairs with a guilty panic. To save Mike from suspicion, she needs to find the real killer and turns detective (this bend in the plot anticipates the premise of Phantom Lady and The Dark Corner and a sub-genre of loyal Girl Friday noirs), pitting her against the man acting out Mike’s basest desires. Hitchcock loved his doppelgangers and dark doubles—its most obvious expression is in Strangers on a Train but there are echoes throughout his career—and there is the temptation to call this Hitchcockian, but for the fact that the filmmakers never quite seem aware of it. It’s as if this avenging dark angel arises from the alchemy of elements brought together by the filmmakers, not unintended as much as an unconscious expression of their urban nightmare. And yes, it would have been more effective had the film been aware of this dark mirror. Stranger on the Third Floor doesn’t really develop this killer as a dark doppelganger—Mike never really faces him or faces up to his own heart of darkness—but that suggestion of spiritual accessory to murder casts one last shadow over Mike that even the corniest, comically lighthearted of happy endings can’t erase. Like so many of the darkest B-movie crime thrillers, the romantic banter and upbeat music in the final few minutes signal to the audience that everything is behind them, like’s it’s all been a bad dream.
Maybe what finally makes this the first film noir is that, given everything we’ve seen in the suppressed fury Mike’s heart, it’s not something we can shake off with a final kiss and a fade-out as the music rushes up and out. It says “The End,” but in so many ways it was just the beginning.
Stranger on the Third Floor was the second feature on the opening night double bill of Seattle 2011 “Noir City” festival and is available on the Warner Archive Collection of DVD-R discs in a Remastered Edition and it looks superb: an excellent presentation of a minor landmark of a film. Click here to find it on the Warner Archive website.
Please give in to the darkness by donating to the Film Noir Foundation for the restoration of Cy Enfield’s 1950 Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury), one of the many orphans of independently-produced film of the classic studio era.
“For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon” is hosted by Ferdy on Film and The Self-Styled Siren, who are compiling the contributions from all participating websites and blogs. For information on the Blogathon, see Ferdy on Film here, and for information in participating, see The Self-Styled Siren here. The official Facebook page is here.
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