Stranger on the Third Floor: Notes on the First Film Noir

Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.

German expressionism flowers in American cinema

Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.

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Stranger on the Third Floor: The First Film Noir

Stranger on the Third Floor” (Warner Archive)

Warner Archive DVD-R

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.

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