Directed by Boris Ingster
The United States of America
The true soul of film noir isn’t found in shadowy offices, tough private eyes, and deadly femme fatales. Many have made the mistake of believing that film noir is simply a style. It is true that as film noir became popularized overseas by European critics a certain aesthetic became associated with the genre. But the reason why these critics began to associate certain movies as film noir has to do with their plots and focus on the psychological status of their characters. Film noir isn’t the detective walking lonely streets, but the internal monologue bouncing around his head as he tries to separate friend from foe. Film noir isn’t the dark alleyways, but the deviants and crooks who hide in them. And finally, film noir isn’t about amorality, but about moral people trying to make sense of an amoral world. For instance, Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor focuses on two happy, law-biding citizens who are trying to build a life together. But these two citizens find themselves caught up in the middle of a horrific situation that twists their minds to the breaking point. It is from this simple story that one of the first truly great film noir is borne.
The film begins in a lively diner where a young reported named Michael Ward meets his long-time girlfriend Jane for breakfast. Ward happens to be a key witness in a murder trial for a small time criminal named Joe Briggs who was accused of killing a cafe owner named Nick Giuseppe. His eyewitness testimony is instrumental in Briggs’ conviction and sentencing to the electric chair. Ward thinks little of helping send a man to the electric chair. Because of this break, he was awarded a $12 a month raise and a byline for his newspaper. Ward sees this as the perfect opportunity to get married to Jane and to buy a house.
However, Jane is extremely uncomfortable with how he managed to get ahead by helping someone convicted of murder. After he was sentenced, Briggs screeched out that he was innocent over and over again. Jane was mortified by what she saw and consumed by anxieties over the possibility of his innocence. So she badgers Ward about her fears. At first he is dismissive. But then thoughts of wrongful persecution, conviction, and execution begin to haunt his thoughts and dreams.
In one of the film’s most magnificent sequences, Ward has a nightmare where he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. We witness a dazzling collage of hyper-stylized vignettes: reporters obfuscated by giant newspapers declaring his guilt, Jane committing suicide, a trial where Briggs mocks him when he is declared guilty, and a choreographed escort to the electric chair.
This sequence was shot by German expressionist cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca who would later go on to film such masterpieces as Out of the Past (1947) and Clash by Night (1952). In fact, the cinematography in this scene encapsulates Stranger on the Third Floor’s breath-taking visual style. Unlike many other film noir which tended towards naturalistic cinematography enhanced by hard lighting and striking shadows, Stranger on the Third Floor features an astonishing inventory of expressionist filming techniques. There are oblique camera positions, dutch angles, dissolves, voice-overs, extreme shadows, and even exaggerated props.
These techniques all help create an atmosphere of suffocating dread and torment which is only magnified when Ward finally wakes up to discover that one of his neighbors isn’t snoring anymore. See, Ward lives in a tiny apartment building with paper thin walls. One of his neighbors, an irascible old codger, has a chronic snoring problem. The man had repeatedly called the authorities to Ward’s apartment for the slightest violations of the complex’s rules, such as typing on a typewriter after dark. He had annoyed Ward so miserably that he had snapped and threatened to kill him. But it had all been hot air. But when Ward awakens to a silent apartment building, his worst fears are confirmed: the man has been murdered. One thing leads to another and Ward finds himself arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.
What sounds like a predictable plot twist is delivered quite unexpectedly. After Ward’s neighbor is found dead, it is Jane who convinces him to go to the police and explain that he found the body. After all, Jane reasons, if Ward was the killer, why would he so readily go to the police? But when the police discover that he was the key witness in Briggs’ trial, they begin to wonder why he was the first person to discover the dead body in both instances. But still, Ingster misleads the audience by having Ward interrogated by a sympathetic police detective. And then, suddenly, Jane gets the message that he has been arrested. Ingster’s decision to not show Ward’s arrest and instead only inform the audience of it via Jane throws the entire police and justice system into question. It comes as an assault to our senses and better judgment...much like a wrongful conviction would to an innocent man.
There is only one thing that can clear Ward’s name: a strange, little man who recently moved into his apartment building. Ward swears that he saw him before...possibly the night Giuseppe was murdered. So Jane sets out to find this mystery man. The problem is that nobody can seem to remember him. That is, at least, until she accidentally stumbles upon him muttering to himself about things best left unsaid. Peter Lorre delivers one of his career’s greatest performances as this toad-like creature. What is even more impressive is that he manages to do so with less screen-time than he did as Hans Beckert in M (1931). Lorre manages to create a character that carefully teeters on the edge of insanity without becoming outright maniacal. Watch how he delivers his monstrous lines as casually as one would discuss their dry cleaning. There is a certain intensity, a kind of hatchet-behind-the-back apprehension that engulfs him much like Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960), Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008). In hindsight, it is a blessing that Lorre was featured so sparingly in Stranger on the Third Floor. If they had used him more, it would have ruined his character.
Most film critics and historians point to John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the first authentic film noir. However, Stranger on the Third Floor
should be lauded as the rightful recipient of that honor. More than any
other film of its time, it zeroed in on what truly defines the genre:
substance, not style.