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The Tell-Tale Noir.
Sneaking out in 1940 was a sleeper film's sleeper film, a riveting little creepshow called Stranger on the Third Floor. Scarcely more than an hour long, this movie directed by Boris Ingster is a masterpiece in miniature.
All who see Stranger on the Third Floor remember it. Even Forrest J. Ackerman's less than scholarly Famous Monsters magazine knew it was dealing with something special when the title appeared in an article on scary movies that weren't exactly horror, but that elicited the same reaction. It was listed among other titles that meant nothing to young monster fans, or that rarely showed on television, like The Queen of Spades. Somebody showed me that old article again, in a reprint ... many of those "huh?" titles are now favorites.
Stranger takes place during hard times in New York. Few jobs pay a living wage. Working "kids" Mike Ward and Jane (John McGuire & Margaret Tallichet) want desperately to marry, but that's impossible unless Mike, a newspaper reporter, can get a promotion. That may happen, but in a less than desirable way. Mike is a key witness in a murder case, in which cab driver Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is convicted on circumstantial evidence. He's uncomfortable knowing that his testimony, blown up by his newspaper, has weighed the verdict against Briggs. But Mike can't be responsible for just telling the truth, can he?
Mike takes Jane up to his room to dry off in a rainstorm, which brings both the landlady (Ethel Griffies) and Mike's obnoxious, prudish neighbor Mr. Meng (Charles Halton) over to heap scorn upon them. When Meng insults Jane's virtue Mike becomes livid, and says he'd like to kill him. The next day Mike notices that he can't hear Meng through the paper-thin walls, and begins to imagine that someone has murdered the nasty old man. Then Mike has a harrowing nightmare in which he is accused of the crime. Everything he's said and done works against him as circumstantial evidence. Is Meng really dead? What will Mike do if he is?
Stranger on the Third Floor is often cited as the first official film noir of the classic period. 1 In the sense that it contains the visual elements we think of as noir, that's exactly right. But I think Forrest Ackerman had the right idea when he identified Stranger on the Third Floor as horror. We feel Mike Ward's growing panic as doubt and fear close in around him, but his panic is not an existential trap as in the noir Dark Corner, nor does it spring from a character weakness. Mike isn't a pessimistic "loser hero" like Al Roberts of Detour. He's just an ordinary guy with ordinary desires, the kind that reveal society's rules as ambivalent and hypocritical. Guilt is imposed from without and amplified by doubts from within. Putting aside the fate of a condemned man because it's convenient for his career .... guilt. Taking a girl up to one's room, and being seen by the disapproving neighbors ... guilt.
The bulk of the movie takes place on street-level New York, where the wannabe bride and groom must conduct their romance on barstools at a local lunch counter. Beyond that, there's only Mike's cramped room, where he can't even use a typewriter without his intolerant neighbor Mr. Meng protesting the noise. What everyone remembers, of course, is the horriffic nightmare sequence, which kicks the film into full-on Cabinet of Dr. Caligari mode. Crazy distorted visuals follow one another in fast succession as smug policemen and smirking offiicals railroad the boy for Meng's murder. Mike's cell and the courtroom dock are islands in a forest of monstrous shadows; everything seems to be happening in a malevolent limbo. The judge and his officers presume Mike to be guilty and the jurors sleep like dead men. Everybody is against Mike, even the victim Meng, who with perfect dream logic turns up in the courtroom to jeer at him. Mike walks the last mile alone and abandoned...
This must have been powerful stuff in 1940, a cockeyed onslaught that makes the audience feel the helplessness of persecution and the psychological isolation when nobody seems to be on our side. The heavy stylization is of course a dose of classic German Expressionism, served straight up. American talkies took to the style mostly in a few horror movies, isolated montages and effects scenes, some of them made by German expatriate directors. I'm amused by critics that assert that the delirious courtroom nightmare makes a serious statement about justice in America -- this fantasy trial belongs in the Land of Oz, or Dante's Inferno. Stranger certainly didn't introduce this style to American films -- a primary precursor being Busby Berkeley's weirdly sinister expressionist epic musical number Lullabye of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935.
So, is Stranger on the Third Floor really noir, or not? The answer is yes, with reservations. To me the movie feels more like horror, even though it passes the checklist test for a noir of the classic period.
The sense of psychic entrapment is there, and the paranoia about one's relationship to the law certainly applies, so, sure, check the noir box. But the psychological effect is more like an Edgar Allan Poe Story. The Mike Ward -- Mr. Meng relationship is an extrapolation of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, right down to the audio cues that fuel Mike's anger. Ward is more than a little extreme in his emotions -- perhaps it's all that frustrated sex drive bottled up inside him. If we decide that his repeated hateful outbursts, which include death threats, aren't just a plot device to make his trial go badly, they may be a manifestation of an irrational fury against the despised Mr. Meng. If the movie took a different tack, and Mike "didn't know his own mind", he very well could be the killer. A few later noirs presented a deserving hero desperately fighting to prove himself guilty of a crime he didn't commit. The hero's sweetheart does her best to clear his name, only to find out, ta-dah, that he's been guilty all the time. A couple of late noirs by Nicholas Ray and Fritz Lang take this Did He Or Didn't He? to the next level -- In a Lonely Place and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
Peter Lorre is given star billing but appears on screen for just a few minutes. Production-wise, that's a low-budget horror gambit: write a script that needs Karloff or Carradine only for two days but use their names for marquee bait. Lorre makes every moment count with an exaggerated take on his previous child-killer in "M". This time out he's another mess of psychological disturbances, behaving like something that crawled out from under a rock. The Stranger is tender and loving to small animals, but apparently slaughters people without the slightest sense of responsibility. Psych students back in 1940 laughed at the schematism of it all -- The Stranger is like a piece of Mike Ward's personality, split off to commit the nasty crimes Mike only thinks about. If the movie has a flaw, it's that the nightmare sequence is its real climax, and that the "mystery" wraps up so quickly. Lorre appears barely long enough to ... no spoilers. Here's Peter! -- and there he goes.
It didn't pay for a small film to have artistic pretensions in 1940. Critics and trade papers called it pretentious and incompetent, and dismissed the dream sequence as silly. The legendary Nathanael West was an uncredited co-screenwriter.
Able-bodied actor John McGuire pretty much missed the big opportunities. He played a proto- "John Wayne" part in John Ford's Steamboat 'Round the Bend, and was even given the character name "Duke". His true-blue looks mostly got him bits as cops and soldiers. McGuire is the memorably unlucky cop at the beginning of the noir classic He Walked by Night. Cute Margaret Tallichet reminds some viewers of Frances Dee. She had ambitions as an actress and got off to a great start, only to be stopped cold when she married director William Wyler, who didn't want her to work. Charles Halton, the humorless bank examiner in It's a Wonderful Life, is at his slimiest as Mr.Meng -- he represents every frustration standing in the way of the lovers. It's a generational constant: why don't worthless fossils like that just die, and make room for us wonderful young folk?
Alfter Lorre, the best face in the movie may be that of Elisha Cook, Jr., the cosmic loser in classic noirs and westerns by everybody from Huston to Hawks to Stevens to Kubrick. Cabbie Joe is saved, but not because anybody stuck their neck out for him -- a handsome hero's life had to be on the line first. This makes the glorious trio of handshakes at the end of the film seem a little hollow in retrospect -- the grateful Joe doesn't care that he rode to redemption on somebody else's coattails. I'd identify Stranger as Cook's breakout role, but his bit parts continued apace, between his more noted appearances.
Director of photography Nicholas Musuraca never was fully appreciated until way later, when critics began extolling the consummate artistry in his Val Lewton and Film Noir RKO's like Out of the Past. Musuraca's work on Cat People established the RKO house style for thrillers of all kinds. Stranger on the Third Floor's radically stylized dream sequence surely inspired Hitchcock's Dali episode in Spellbound. But few if any noirs succumb to full-on expressionism. Kirk Douglas pitches forward into a stark death-portrait at the end of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, a jarring effect that definitely has an expressionist element. But it isn't blatantly abstract or a distortion of reality. It's influenced by German Expressionism, whereas Stranger's nightmare scene is German Expressionism.
Stranger on the Third Floor would make a great double bill with Preston Sturges' Christmas in July, made the same year. Both feature young couples frustrated by the stagnant job situation (lingering effects of the Depression) and both men feel pressure to succeed through writing. One enters a foolish contest for an advertising slogan, and the other seeks the promotion that a successful, sensational news story can give him. And both fall into a nightmare partially of their own making. It's interesting how the structures of comedy and horror can be so similar. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Stranger on the Third Floor is promoted as a 'remastered edition'. The title sequence is pretty weak, but as soon as the feature rolls up the quality improves exponentially. Contrast and sharpness are very good. Those stylized images in the dream sequence look like artwork panels escaped from a graphic novel.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stranger on the Third Floor rates:
1. The package text for this WAC release carries a review quote, just like a standard CD. It misspells the name of film scholar and theorist Robert Porfirio, now retired from teaching. I got to meet Porfirio a couple of years ago while going over his impressive film book collection. He had everything, including a rare fully-illustrated early edition of Lo Duca's L'Erotisme au Cinema.
2. Both films appeal to what must have been a universal anxiety among the youth of 1940 -- so many characters in Hollywood movies of the time enjoy independent wealth and liberating personal freedoms. They have servants, drive fancy cars and frequent swank nightclubs. The women wear slinky clothes that mother would never approve, and lovers have time to be alone together. The Mikes and the Janes of 1940 have no privacy and are dogged by self-appointed chaperones that assume they're doing sinful things. We're totally on Mike and Jane's side. Just two generations ago, in most 'nice' situations, the puritan strait-jacket and the double standard prevailed.
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T'was Ever Thus.