I recently found out about this film, which is often described as “the first film noir,” and got my hands on a copy of it as soon as I could. Although the term “film noir” was used in France to describe “social cinema” films celebrating the Popular Front in the ’30s, the definition of “film noir” as we understand it today was first used by French critic Nino Frank to describe a number of earlier American movies that were screened for the first time in France during the summer of 1946: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Otto Preminger’s Laura, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. Stranger of the Third Floor certainly anticipates the themes of these films, and contains healthy doses of the earmarks that would continue to define the look of the genre throughout the ’40s and ’50s: steep staircases, stark lighting, diagonal shadows, low camera angles, and expressionist dream sequences.
Like many films that have today become classics of film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor was made under budgetary and time constraints. Peter Lorre had two days left on his contract with RKO, and was given a small part which recalled his most famous role in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), as a psycho killer roving through the city. Although he only appears in the finished film for a few minutes, Lorre was given top billing over a cast of unknowns. The plot centers on Mike Ward (John McGuire), a struggling newspaper reporter who was witness to murder/robbery in his local diner. He testifies against Joe Briggs (a very young Elisha Cook Jr.), a one-time convict who is convicted and sentences. The publicity surrounding the case wins Mike his first byline in the newspaper, and a raise that make it possible for him to marry sweetheart Jane (Margaret Tallichet). Throughout the trial, Joe Briggs insists on his innocence, and Jane begins to worry that Mike may have sent an innocent man to the chair. Mike notices a stranger (Lorre) hanging around his stairwell, outside the door of a cantankerous old neighbor with whom Mike is always feuding. In an extended dream sequence, Mike sees himself being tried and wrongly convicted for the murder of the neighbor. He wakes to discover the neighbor has in fact been killed. Jane roams the city in search of the stranger in order to clear Mike.
The script was written Hungarian writer Frank Partos, who later went on to work on the script of The Snake Pit (1948). Nathanael West, who wrote the acclaimed novel on the follies of early Hollywood, The Day of the Locusts, did some uncredited work on the script shortly before he died in a car accident. Direction was handled by another Eastern European, Boris Ingster, who was helming his first film as director, and would complete only a few more before going into producing for television. But it is not the script or the direction that define Stranger on the Third Floor as a film noir. But it is not the script or direction, which are both merely average, that define this as the first film noir. Perhaps the most important players were the cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who would soon go on to firm up the visual look of film noir in his work for Val Lewton in Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, and The 7th Victim, as well as art director Van Nest Polglase. In the following year, Polglase would lend his talents to the memorable sets of an other RKO production: Citizen Kane, and he would win an Oscar for best art direction for another of his 1940 films, My Favorite Wife, one of 37 films he work on that year. The cinematography, set design, and editing in the central dream sequence is simply stunning. Mike falls asleep in his apartment, slumped in an armchair. The camera zooms in, and after a nearly imperceptible cut, he is in a barren soundstage, surrounded by hardboiled police investigators who shout accusations through the heavy cigar smoke. In a warped, distorted cityscape, Jane reads the news in the papers and goes hysterical as his former coworkers gloat over a “MURDER!” headline that files the entire front page of the late edition. Mike’s jail cell is implied not by actual bars, but diagonal shadows, and the court room is all exaggerated angles and stark shadows, a trick Hitchcock would use in Dial M for Murder more than a decade later.
The film ends with Jane confronting the stranger, and then follows saccharine sweet coda, which shows that Mike still has his raise and his girl, and Joe Briggs isn’t going to the electric chair. The neatly packaged ending is another weak-point in the film, but the amazing atomosphere in the second act more than makes up for the shortcomings of the script.