Cinema Sleuth – Stranger on the Third Floor

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A psychological melodrama with trick photography and sound effects even though the plot-line has been tried and tested several times, the film certainly managed to send shivers up the viewers’ spines. A little known thriller and a bizarre film noir that keeps you on the edge till the last minute.

Stranger on the Third Floor is a 1940 American film noir starring Peter Lorre, John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet in the lead cast. Directed by Boris Ingster, Produced by Lee S. Marcus and released by RKO Radio Pictures, the film story was written by Frank Partos who also wrote the screenplay.

Reporter Michael Ward (portrayed by John McGuire) becomes a key witness in a murder trial. However, his fiancee Jane (portrayed by Margaret Tallichet) thinks he was mistaken. His decision to relook at the evidence and his own account leads him to a suspect, a murder and himself being tangled in it. Now it is up to Jane to help him find the truth.

A later research showed that Nathaniel West, famous American author and screenwriter had also contributed to the story-line, although never credited. However, this film is famously known as the first true film noir of the classic period 1940-1959. Despite other movies that are considered film noir released prior to this, this film has the more hallmarks of film noir than them – an urban setting, heavy shadows, diagonal lines, voice-over narration, dream sequence, low lighting and camera angles and above all an innocent protagonist who is tangled in the web of a mystery that they try to come out of.

And what a boost to director Boris Ingster that this film became the first true film noir, for it was his debut film as well. Yet, it was not well received when it first released. Perhaps that is why Ingster directed only three feature films, before he moved on to television where he carved for himself a successful career as a producer. Art Direction by Van Nest Polglase depicted all the said noir elements in perfect harmony. He gave a claustrophobic feel to the plot with his magic of creating the right set for the right mood.

John McGuire as the stalwart reporter Michael Ward has played his part efficiently. Specially the dream sequence. He played so well that while watching it I forgot it was a dream sequence until it ended, and realized then. I don’t remember seeing a lot of his movies even though he had many leading man roles in the 30s, and transitioned to bit parts in 40s and 50s.

Margaret Tallichet who played Jane, did only two more films after this before she retired from acting and Hollywood. She married William Wyler, a Swiss-German-America film director and producer in 1938, and made films for another four years after marriage before retiring.

Margaret however reminds me of American actress Angie Harmon, famous for her role as Assistant District Attorney Abbie Carmichael. Don’t you see the resemblance too?.

Peter Lorre has a very brief role but he manages to give us his expertise in the horror genre he is so famed for. **Shudders and Shivers**

He owed RKO Radio Pictures two days on his contract, and hence the small role with minimal dialogues. Yet he received top billing in the film.

This film features Elisha Cook Jr. as Joe Briggs. Elisha Cook Jr. plays a character in the dream sequence and also plays the taxi driver in the last scene of the film.

When it released in the theaters it did not receive a favorable review and some even considered that it felt like going thru a nightmare. However, it has since been considered the very first true film noir. The film displays the actors slide with the title “Players”

Despite the negative review at the time of the release, I think the film was well-made and stuck to the film noir genre to the T. Even the courtroom drama with comic relief only added to the charm of the film.  Most of the story is also told in narration in the background by McGuire’s Michael Ward, and numerous flashbacks and a very lengthy dream sequence.

A psychological melodrama with trick photography and sound effects even though the plot-line has been tried and tested several times, the film certainly managed to send shivers up the viewers’ spines. A little known thriller and a bizarre film noir that keeps you on the edge till the last minute.

Spoiler Alerts:

  1. Movie Trivia:
    1. Film composer Roy Webb reused and reworked on some of the themes from this film for the 1944 American film noir Murder, My Sweet.

2. Look at the styling of Jane’s jacket in the back. The slats in the back is a very unique design.

Notice the Washington Square Arch in the Washington Square Park in NYC behind Mike and Nick while they are talking about the trouble they might have landed in.

  1. Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:
    1. When Mike joins Jane at the luncheon counter; Jane is holding a piece of toast in her left hand. But on the next cut which is a shot of the mirror showing the reflection of Jane holding the toast and Mike pointing; the image shown in the mirror of Jane holding the toast is reversed of how a reflection should appear. Then when it cuts back to the real them; Jane is no longer holding a piece of toast.
    2. In the press room, the cigarette that a reporter is holding moves from left to right without any actual movement between cuts.
    3. The prosecutor mentions past crimes of Joe Briggs in the court room, while the defense lawyer doesn’t object. If this was tried in the current era or if the defense lawyer was Perry Mason, I am sure there would have been objecting to that line of questioning.
    4. The places where the raincoat gets wet is different between scenes when Michael and Jane are outside his apartment door vs when they enter the apartment.
    5. The shades are differently drawn in the coffee shop between its inside view and outside view when Jane follows The Stranger.

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