Jun 6, 2016
On DVD: The Birth of Film Noir in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
Today Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is most famous for being one of the first to fully embody classic film noir style. It easy to see why; its bleak fatalism and dark shadowy look do scream noir. Now available in a remastered edition on DVD from Warner Archive, a wider audience can admire the interesting stylistic choices of this unusual film.
Before going too far into the film, it is important to make a distinction about Peter Lorre's involvement. Though the actor is the title character, given top billing, and featured prominently in the advertising, he doesn't play the lead role. While his quietly unstrung performance is the best of the ensemble, and his character is of great importance, he only appears in two scenes.
Lorre had two days remaining on his RKO contract, and taking a small role enabled him to fulfill his obligations without committing to another major production. However, he was too big a star by then to play second fiddle to lesser-known names, and so he was top billed.
The actual star of Stranger on the Third Floor is John McGuire, in one of his most prominent roles. He is Mike Ward, a reporter who gets his big break, and a front page byline when he comes upon a murder scene and serves as a key witness in the trial. His testimony leads to the conviction of hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) who passionately swears he didn't do it. When Mike's neighbor is killed in a similar way to the previous victim, he realizes that he has made a mistake and the murderer is still on the loose.
One of the great drawbacks of the film is that Lorre, in his bit as a psychopathic killer, and Cook in a gut-churning court scene are more compelling to watch than McGuire. As the short-tempered, morally uneven Ward, he doesn't have the charisma to compensate for the unpleasant aspects of his character's personality. That said, he does have an interesting physical style of acting, sometimes taking on the stylized, dramatic poses of a performer in a German silent. The intensity of that posturing works well with his character's increasing sense of dread.
Margaret "Talli" Tallichet, who is best known for her long marriage to director William Wyler, is pleasant as Mike's fiancée Jane, and serves well as the brave and determined moral anchor of the film. Her wide-set eyes and dark hair remind me of Karen Carpenter, and at times she exudes a similar fragility when she becomes dismayed by the corruption around her. This was the actress' most prominent role and one of few she played in Hollywood before retiring from the screen upon her second pregnancy to focus on parenting (with a total of five kids, she seems to have done well in her second career).
In addition to its bleak thematic elements, the film also has the distinctive look of a film noir, with its long shadows and dark hallways. It draws heavily from the tense, moody visuals of German Expressionism, but with a grittier, more realistic feel than was common with earlier cinematic experiments with the style. Here you can see how noir and horror are deeply connected genres; stylistically they both inspire the same feeling of dread.
All these elements are used to their best effect in a stylized dream sequence that is rightfully the most famous passage in the film. With echoing, cavernous spaces made oppressive by long shadows and sharply intimidating camera angles, it is a perfect expression of the cold, incomprehensible world as envisioned by Ward.
A film with such compelling visuals as Stranger on the Third Floor could greatly benefit from a full restoration, but the DVD image is clean enough that its remarkable imagery can be adequately appreciated.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.