Elisha Cook, Jr.
1 Hr., 2 Mins.
Stranger on the Third Floor October 2, 2020
e thinks he knows what happened; things would be so much easier if he knew what happened. The other night, journalist Michael Ward (John McGuire), the lead of Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), witnessed a murder. Or at least he thinks he did. He was peering through the windows of a diner and saw a man in there on the ground, his throat cut. An owl-eyed young man (Elisha Cook, Jr.)
was standing over him.
Days later, Michael presents this information in court. He also uses it in one of his articles, which makes the cover of his paper. (It's presented to us like a flagship story — the sort of piece that could jumpstart a career, which it is implied Michael doesn't quite yet have.) He tells the public that he’s sure the owl-eyed young man is the person responsible for the crime. But his gut tells
him that merely seeing someone in close proximity to a murdered body doesn’t confirm anything, necessarily. The inner tug of war gets worse when the accused is deemed guilty and then sent to death row. The circumstantial evidence, it seems, was enough. Nothing about this feels right. When the supposed murderer pleads “I’m innocent!” over and over again as he’s being dragged away, we believe him.
In Stranger on the Third Floor, Michael’s mushrooming guilt over what he eventually decides might have actually been a hasty finger-wag on his part (in addition to the insistence of his girlfriend, played modestly by Margaret Tallichet) leads him to both informally investigate a little further and try to glean new information from his memory banks. The whole movie, blessedly just a little over an hour (and also made for less than $200,000), is rather far-fetchedly conceived, once we get a good grasp of what it’s trying to do.
McGuire and especially Tallichet lack the charisma sorely needed in a film built on a shaky story. But there is good to be eked. Peter Lorre, as the title character (he’s a shady neighbor of Michael's who might know more about the murder than he's letting on), is superbly creepy. He's only in the movie for a total of about two minutes, in little wordless fits and spurts throughout the feature to engender the idea that he's something of an elusive apparition. When the suspenseful climax comes and he’s able to stay around a while, we immediately want him to drift back into the shadows. The climax is suspenseful almost solely because he’s in it.
Stranger on the Third Floor is a visual marvel. Shadowy and queasily angled, the mounting claustrophobia generated by Michael’s guilt is effectively illustrated. The centerpiece of the movie — what I’d say is the utmost reason to watch it aside from the characteristically generous Lorre — is undoubtedly the mid-film nightmare sequence, wherein Michael and the man he has accused of murder switch roles. It’s a well-realized burst of surrealism, augmented by the clanging sound editing and nauseating cinematography from Nicholas Musuraca (1942’s Cat People, 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker). You half-expect a dribbly clock to cameo at some point during its vertiginous few minutes.
Stranger on the Third Floor is also frequently touted as the very first film-noir movie on account of its story and visual style, which, through a historical lens, certainly makes it unmissable. (Though I’d say Raoul Walsh’s month-older They Drive By Night, often invoked as the “excuse me, what about !” in this situation, is the real genre progenitor.) Without Lorre and its significance to the genre, Stranger on the Third Floor would be passable. But the fact remains that it has both and that cool nightmare sequence. C+