“Stranger on the Third Floor” (Warner Archive)
Film noir has been called a style, an attitude, a movement, an era of Hollywood filmmaking, and it’s all of these. But what I love best about film noir—apart from the thrill of a good hard-edged tale of hard-boiled characters in a hard-luck world—is that it’s the only genre defined by its aesthetics. A film needs to hit a certain expressive quality to be considered a true noir. It’s not just about a nocturnal world; noir is about shadows that swallow people up as they slip deeper into moral corruption and slashes of light that reach through the dark like claws. Poles of good and bad get complicated. Characters fumble through shades of gray and slip into pulp tragedy, driven by a feverish desperation that is doomed to get somebody killed.
There are plenty of antecedents and inspirations on the road to noir—German Expressionist cinema, American gangster films, hardboiled fiction, French poetic realism, documentary and Italian neo-realism—but historians and critics all tend to agree that the first true American film noir was not the legendary 1941 “Maltese Falcon” but a ambitious B-movie crime thriller from the year before which co-starred a couple of actors who got a lot more exposure from “Falcon,” Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr. “Stranger on the Third Floor” is a paranoid 1940 murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia.
John McGuire, a light stiff of a low-watt romantic leading man takes the lead as reporter Mike Ward, just an ambitious American guy who gets his big break when he becomes the star witness in a murder trail, but top billing goes to Lorre, whose American claim to fame at that time was playing Japanese detective Mr. Moto in a series of B movies. He’s the Stranger of the title and in just a couple of brief scenes he dominates the picture. A thin, sunken man haunting the streets of Mike’s low-rent neighborhood, he’s like a little boy lost by way of a wandering war refugee, but with a homicidal side, as Mike discovers after his testimony sends a poor schlub (Elisha Cook Jr.) to the chair for a murder that he probably didn’t commit.