STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. RKO Radio Pictures, 1940. Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook Jr. Director: Boris Ingster.


   Stranger on the Third Floor is sometimes cited as the first film noir, and it certainly is the first film I know of to combine that sense of bleak oppression and German expressionism in a contemporary crime film. And if it’s not completely successful, one has only to look at the obvious effort involved and give it high marks for trying.

   The story is certainly essential noir: reporter Mike Ward has just gotten a big promotion for being the star witness in a murder case, he’s about to marry his girl and move out of his crummy apartment… in short one of those guys coming up in the world who, in movies like these, invariably comes crashing down.

   In this case it starts with Ward’s fiancée having doubts about how Mike’s testimony helped convict a man who may be innocent — doubts enough to break off their engagement. This segues into an extended nightmare sequence wherein Ward dreams he’s executed for a murder he didn’t commit. From there, it’s just a short step to Ward actually being arrested for Murder, and his girlfriend’s lonely, desperate efforts to save him (a theme to recur in films like Phantom Lady and Black Angel).

   This echt-noir story is ladled out with generous helpings of dark photography, ominous music and corrosive characters: an inattentive judge, nosy neighbor and sanctimonious landlady, cops both brutal and dumb (when two identical murders occur within a block of each other, Ward has to point the similarity out to the investigating officer) and the stranger skulking about the third floor. And then there’s that long nightmare, a tour-de-force that outdoes Caligari in its use of surreal lighting and sets.


   Unfortunately, director Boris Ingster (whose career stretched from The Last Days of Pompeii to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and writer Frank Partos (The Uninvited) took it all a bit over the top. Except for Ward and his girlfriend, there are simply no likeable characters in this dark, seedy world. In fact, everyone seems to go out of his way to be a little more unpleasant. Ingster also seems to have directed his players to put it on the edge of hysteria; only Margaret Tallichet, a talented Maureen-O’Hara-type, seems at all natural or convincing.

   On the balance though, Stranger is saved from itself by Peter Lorre, who is only in the movie maybe ten minutes as the—well, as the stranger on the third floor. Seen only in quick haunting glimpses at first (like Raymond Burr in the thematically similar Rear Window) Lorre finally emerges as a supremely terrifying and oddly sympathetic little boogeyman, just the type to chill your spine and tug your heart strings. It’s a memorable bit of casting in a film that for all its faults deserves a look.