|Vintage Pulp||Aug 16 2021|
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.
HungaryStranger on the Third FloorPeter LorreJohn McGuireMargaret TallichetElisha Cook Jr.poster artcinemafilm noirmovie review