Often considered one of the very first of the films noir, Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor is an impressionistic and surreal motion picture. The 1940 release from RKO Radio Pictures features a screenplay by Frank Partos and Nathanael West and packs in many of the hallmarks of the genre.
Ingster’s picture takes a dutifully cynical view of the justice system and of life in general, giving Stranger on the Third Floor a sense of doom. Much of the movie is spent following the protagonist as he wiles away inside his own head and questions the natures of innocence and guilt in light of recent events.
John McGuire is said protagonist, the reporter Mike Ward. He’s just been given his big break by means of a two-column spread in the paper. See, he was a witness to the murder of the owner of a diner and he swears he saw Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) standing over the body. Things are picking up for Ward as a result, so he proposes marriage to his girlfriend Jane (Margaret Tallichet).
When Jane attends the trial to watch her fiancé’s testimony, she’s disturbed by Briggs’ rabid pleas of innocence. She’s uncertain if Ward saw what he saw and heads for home, leaving the reporter to struggle with his conscience. And when his pesky neighbour (Charles Halton) is killed in similar fashion, Ward starts to wonder which end is up.
All the while, the mysterious stranger (Peter Lorre) lurks. He lingers around the boarding house Ward calls home, appearing here and there like a spectre. He doesn’t speak until the bitter end, when Lorre gets to reveal a bizarre countenance to match the eerie way Nicholas Musuraca’s lens has been picking him up.
And Musuraca’s cinematography has a lot to do with how effective Stranger on the Third Floor is. He shoots the beautiful low contrast lighting with a collection of sophisticated yet murky shots, positioning the camera near obstructions to spread a shadow across the soul of the characters. There are eye-level shots and low-level shots and these immerse the viewer in a damaged perspective.
Everything in Stranger on the Third Floor is about casting doubt. While we are granted an access point in Ward, steps are taken to cloud belief in his innocence. As flashbacks merge with dream sequences, faults emerge and there are cracks in the façade. Maybe this Ward character isn’t as gee-golly virtuous as he appears.
Even Ward struggles with himself, as he starts to wonder if ostensibly off-handed remarks to his pesky neighbour might’ve paved the way to something more sinister. He wonders if it’s possible that he drew the blade across the man’s throat, if it’s he didn’t actually see what he saw. Maybe he’s a real heel.
The insistent voiceover sinks us into this vacillation, as McGuire’s suitably plodding narrative reminds the audience that nothing is what it seems in the cavernous night. Ward starts to pick things apart, starts to drill into the minutiae of basic moments.
Tallichet is subsequently thrust into the role of access point and investigator, especially when things go bad for Ward in the last few minutes. While Stranger on the Third Floor spends most of its time exploring the psychological (and surreal) nature of doubt, there’s still a question to answer and Jane seems most interested in it. It’s this drive that causes her to track down the stranger.
There is a startling and tense conversation that draws out the brilliance of Lorre’s performance and makes marvellous use of Musuraca’s cinematography. It leads to the end of a nightmare and suggests a final flight from darkness to light. And it confirms the arrival of film noir, one of the most influential of all cinematic genres.