Eddie Robson, who is one of the world’s most thorough-going experts on film noir, is determined that Stranger on the Third Floor is the world’s first noir. Not that one should spend a lot of time on this debate, but still it’s discussed. Despite being heavy on the expressionist shadows and the hapless hero, Stranger on the Third Floor lacks a few key noir elements, notably the femme fatale or bad girl — of which there is none. But it more than makes up for that in shadows and the psychological blurring of dream and reality.
The dream sequence is an absolutely surreal and damning look at the US judicial system, and the reality is stark. This is a film that in its own word wants a couple of hamburgers . . . and wants them raw.
Life is great until . . .
Nathaniel West of Day of the Locust fame should have been credited with some of the forward looking writing in Stranger on the Third Floor, but wasn't, but it's the writing that lifted Stranger out of the 1930s and gave it that starnge and exciting feel. It's the way that the film begins to combine genres that is so brilliant, borrowing from horror, crime, detective and social problems styles of film making.
. . . you meet the stranger!
On the downside, Stranger on The Third Floor wastes the talents of Peter Lorre on a whole lot of face-pulling antics, when he should be acting. Like in Phantom Lady, the villain of Stranger on the Third Floor is a psychopath, albeit a sympathetic one. The deal is that he only kills if he feels people are threatening to send him back to the asylum, where they truss him up and treat him mean. Somewhere in the process, I got it into my head that the classic noir crime must be committed for reasons of human weakness — greed — lust — or even by accident — so I never saw the psychopath as a classic noir villain.
It doesn't matter though, because Stranger on the Third Floor completely ushered in the era of noir, more than any other film. Again, although the idea of the narration in the form of voiceover wasn't new, the tone of its delivery was. Maybe John McGuire wasn't much of an actor, but the way the voiceover is whispered, usually quite thoughtfully, and in a flat and bland tone, is an ideal introduction to film noir.
It had only been ten years since Peter Lorre had played one of the greatest psychopaths of all time in M. He is massively entertaining in Stranger on the Third Floor although he has very little to work with. You will feel the same disappointment that audiences felt in 1940; Peter Lorre is barely in this film at all, despite being top-billed and the main attraction, indeed probably the reason that many went to see it in its day.
District Attorney: So now, you believe both murders were committed by the same man?
Michael Ward: Yes, I do.
District Attorney: Well, maybe you're right. As you pointed out, there are certain similarities between the two crimes, but you missed perhaps the most important: both murders were discovered by the same man - you!
Michael Ward: What are you driving at?
District Attorney: Tell me, has there ever been any insanity in your family?
The real star of Stranger on the Third Floor is the dream sequence, which contrasts the whole odd drama and its peculiar structure. Look out for in particular the angular images of the prison bars with the gruesome shadow of the electric chair. I've broken down the story of this film noir as follows:
- Trial and conviction of innocent man.
- This is replayed in the mind of the newspaper writer who helped convict him, culminating in:
- An incredible dream sequence.
- Quickly wound up with the heroine solving the crime.
So Stranger on the Third Floor has these three quirky acts, with the final one being too short, and a kind of entre acte in the form of this great dream sequence. Tagged on to this is the story of the hero’s attempts to be promoted enough at work to be able to afford to marry his beau. This is especially annoying for him as he desperately horny and needs to buy a house before he can get his girl into bed — a tricky proposition. There is a great scene in which, after a rain storm in his rented room, he tries to get off with his fiancée, who foils his advances constantly, merely from her own sensible prudish American values.
One of the easiest ways to spot a noir, is to look for the expressionist shadows. Generally, expressionist set dressing will emphasise crazy lines between light and dark, it's easy to spot. Why it came to be called expressionist, is another story. That's to do with the art movement called expressionism but also critical and even commercial interests emphasising ideas in its name later in the twentieth century.
There was an expressionist style in the cinema, examples of which are Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924).
The term expressionist can refer to stylistic devices thought to resemble those of German Expressionism, but we're reading about it here because the word repeatedly comes up in discussion of film noir. Even more generally, the term expressionism describes cinematic styles which try and employ artifice, of any sort, so you here have the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk which so influenced Fassbinder, or the sound and visual flavours of David Lynch.
Elisha Cook Jnr, film noir
One special delight for me is the inclusion of Elisha Cook Jnr. Simply, Cook has a face that is expressive of craven terror, and he plays the innocent as well as he does the guilty, which is unusual. You’ll be surprised how forgiving his poor character is, but he is presented as a total mug — more than the victim of circumstances, but an utter all round American with so many character facets squeezed into nine minutes of film that you'll be proud of him and Hollywood at the same time.
"What a gloomy dump." STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940)