Directed by Boris Ingster
Screenplay by Frank Partos, Nathanael West (uncredited)
Music by Roy Webb
Edited by Harry Marker
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Peter Lorre as The Stranger
John McGuire as Michael Ward
Margaret Tallichet as Jane
Charles Waldron as the district attorney
Elisha Cook Jr. as Joe Briggs
Charles Halton as Albert Meng
Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Kane, Michael’s landlady
Cliff Clark as Martin
Oscar O’Shea as the judge
Alec Craig as Briggs’s defense attorney
Distributed by RKO Pictures
Many consider Stranger on the Third Floor the first true film noir (click here for an example), and I would have to agree that the film is noir. By the way, French critic Nino Frank first used the term noir to describe The Maltese Falcon and other U.S films when they were finally released internationally after World War II. Maybe the French never had the chance to see Stranger on the Third Floor, or I Wake up Screaming, for that matter (click here to see my blog post about I Wake up Screaming). Some also place Stranger on the Third Floor in the avant noir (or proto noir) category. Either way is fine with me; the film is definitely noir either way.
Michael Ward is promoted to star reporter after witnessing the murder of Nick, the owner of a local neighborhood diner, and being the first to report the story. He is also the star witness in the subsequent murder trial of the prime suspect, Joe Briggs. Jane, Michael’s fiancée, attends the trial and is upset by Brigg’s emotional protest of his innocence on the stand. She discusses her doubts with Michael, who finally admits that he didn’t actually see Briggs kill Nick; he only saw Briggs leaning over Nick’s dead body. Briggs maintains his innocence even after his guilty verdict.
Michael begins to doubt himself. He wonders if Jane might be right and he worries about Briggs getting the electric chair. He’s having trouble getting to sleep one night, and he starts to suspect that his neighbor, Albert Meng, is dead because he can’t hear him snoring through the apartment walls. He has a nightmare in which he is accused of the murder of Meng, and he is put through a similar experience as Briggs.
Michael’s voice-over narration represents his thoughts and self-doubts. He sometimes introduces flashbacks with his train of thought, and these flashbacks are introduced seamlessly. The transition to Michael’s dream sequence is smooth: He puts his head in his hands, and viewers hear him in voice-over: “I’m just tired. I can’t think straight any more. If I could only dive it out of my mind. Get some . . . sleep.”
Stylized sets and dramatic lighting represent Michael’s dream sequence. He is found guilty of Meng’s murder and sentenced to death. His nightmare sequences are brilliant: minimal furniture; lighting that shows bars of light and shadow; the almost cathedral look to the courtroom scenes; distorted sound in the laughter and some of the voices, especially the witnesses; the slow, automaton pacing of the officers as they lead him to the electric chair.
(This blog post about Stranger on the Third Floor contains spoilers.)
Viewers may start to wonder about Michael Ward’s credibility at this point. His suspicion and paranoia seem extreme, but then he discovers that his neighbor Albert Meng really has been murdered when he knocks on his door to check on him. Jane becomes the strong, more confident character when Michael goes to her for help in fleeing the city: She’s the one who urges Michael to go to the police with his discovery of his neighbor’s body. After Michael’s worst fears come true and he is accused of Meng’s murder, she’s the one who canvasses the neighborhood and finds The Stranger, the real killer.
Although The Stranger is an odd character and no one knows his true identity, he is not portrayed as completely unsympathetic. He and Jane have a conversation after she finds him, and he implies that he has been institutionalized before. He says to her, “Did they send you to take me back?” He explains why he will not go back when he mentions some of the mistreatment he suffered: “They put you in a shirt with long sleeves and pour ice water on you.” Peter Lorre’s performance as The Stranger is amazing. Lots of little details convince viewers that he’s not quite right: the way he uses his hands, the way he never quite touches the brim of his hat or finishes what he’s trying to say when he says hello and goodbye. But he is still The Stranger, an unknown, something to be feared. He tries to strangle Jane when she tries to notify the police. She gets away by slipping out of her coat and running down the city street. The Stranger runs after her, and he is killed by a truck when he runs out into the middle of the street. A form of justice thus prevails, but viewers can understand what drove The Stranger to some of his crimes.
So what makes this 1940 film either a film noir or an avant noir? The ambiguous portrayal of The Stranger is one feature that is consistent with noir. Stranger on the Third Floor uses a lot of dark sets and low lighting to tell its story. The highly stylized sets and lighting that represent Michael’s dream are reminiscent of German expressionism, a technique used by many directors of film noir that works especially well here. Michael Ward’s self-doubt and angst come after his certainty that he saw Briggs kill Nick, and the knowledge that he might be wrong haunts him: He’s the quintessential noir protagonist. I’ve never been fond of a strict adherence to categories, and I am happy to call Stranger on the Third Floor both avant noir and film noir.