Vintage Pulp Aug 16 2021
STRANGER DANGER
Don't mess with the man upstairs.


Stranger on the Third Floor is sometimes cited as a proto film noir, coming a year before the first official noir, 1941's The Maltese Falcon. In this day and age, any vintage crime film is called a film noir on crowdsourced websites like IMDB, so depending on where you look film noir isn't as pure a cycle as it used to be. But in this case the debate is fair. The film is about newspaper journalist John McGuire, who serves as a witness at a sensational murder trial, while his fiancée Margaret Tallichet frets about the impact of recognition on their lives. The two of them are planning to move out of their boarding houses and find a place together, but McGuire's building has lately been haunted by a mysterious stranger played by Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. Who is he? Why is he hanging around? Is he somehow connected to the murder?

Gene D. Phillips, in his book Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Film Noir, cites Stranger on the Third Floor as a film that “codified the visual conventions of film noir.” It has flashbacks, a brilliant nightmare sequence, a sense of growing dread, a false accusation (or possibly two), a narration (though not of the hard-boiled variety), and a usage of angles and shadows that is extravagant. Where it differs from film noir is in its general lack of cynicism and world weariness. In fact, it's the opposite. McGuire ponders whether doing his civic duty by testifying will have consequences, but at no point does he feel like a sucker for doing so. He believes in society and its basic functions. The Maltese Falcon, by contrast, offers civic duty as an option, but Sam Spade acts as he does because of his personal code. Duty is secondary, and ultimately, so is love.

Despite these differences between Stranger on the Third Floor and canonical film noir, casting the net wide enough to include this movie makes sense. It definitely gets its influences from the same places as film noir, particularly in German Expressionist cinema of the early 1900s. Interestingly, Lorre would feature prominently in The Maltese Falcon, as would Elisha Cook, Jr., who plays the defendant at the trial. So the connection between Stranger on the Third Floor and film noir is concrete on that level at least. All that said, does our opinion matter? Watch Stranger on the Third Floor and debate whether it's a film noir yourself. You'll see a visual masterwork regardless of which cinematic bin you stick it in. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1940.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
February 01
1920—Royal Canadian Mounted Police Forms
In Canada, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, aka Gendarmerie royale du Canada, begins operations when the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, founded 1873, and the Dominion Police, founded 1868, merge. The force, colloquially known as Mounties, is one of the most recognized law enforcement groups of its kind in the world.
1968—Image of Vietnam Execution Shown in U.S.
The execution of Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem by South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan is videotaped and photographed by Eddie Adams. This image showed Van Lem being shot in the head, and helped build American public opposition to the Vietnam War.
January 31
1928—Soviets Exile Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik revolutionary, Marxist theorist, and co-leader of the Russian October Revolution, is exiled to Alma Ata, at the time part of the Soviet Union but now located in Kazakhstan. He is later expelled entirely from the Soviet Union to Turkey, accompanied by his wife Natalia Sedova and his son Lev Sedov.
January 30
1933—Hitler Becomes Chancellor
Adolf Hitler is sworn in as Chancellor of Germany in President Paul Von Hindenburg's office, in what observers describe as a brief and simple ceremony. Hitler's first speech as Chancellor takes place on 10 February. The Nazis' seizure of power subsequently becomes known as the Machtergreifung.
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