Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

ed. note: This was meant to be my contribution to the great For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon, co-hosted by those great and lovely dames of classic cinema bloggerdom,  Ferdy on Film and Self-Styled Siren, but a combination of someone else already tackling the same movie for the same Blogathon and just good old fashioned procrastination (my archnemesis and worst bad habit) I come up a day late and a dollar short as they say.  Nonetheless, here is my day late and dollar short contribution anyway.  And no matter the day and time, you can still donate to this very worthy cause HERE.  I will have another donation link at the end of the post (in case you forget), but for now, here is my (unofficial and out-of-competition) contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon.

Oh yeah, and there are spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution.
One could (and many have) argue the validity of Stranger on the Third Floor being the ostensible first Film Noir - the Noir Patient X if you will - but its use of chiaroscuro cinematography, German Expressionism (which is where Noir was truly born - visually speaking that is) and psychological self-torture, as well as its being the story of a man wrongly convicted, make a damn fine argument for, rather than against such a claim. 

Directed by Latvian-born (actually the Russian Empire at the time) Boris Ingster, and starring John McGuire as the aforementioned self-tortured, wrongly-convicted man, Stranger on the Third Floor starts out as what appears to be a standard crime drama - a young, recently engaged, aspiring reporter gets his "big break" (and first by-line) by covering a murder trial that he is also the key witness in (really not sure how the whole conflict of interest thing never seems to get in the way) - that quickly deepens into a psychological mind fuck of a movie.  Questions of whether the man on trial (the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr.) is actually innocent or not - he was seen over the dead body but is never seen actually killing the victim - and the ramifications of such possibilities begin to eat away at our main character.
This is where the film takes a sudden turn into Noir territory, as Ingster changes the whole demeanor of the movie.  Beginning an inner dialogue , McGuire's Mike Ward is tortured with the thought that he may have helped put an innocent man in the electric chair.  This is also the place where the titular stranger makes his first appearance.  Played by Peter Lorre, at his disheveled creepiest (and, due to contract specifications at RKO, receiving top billing for a role that is achingly short and consists of only a quick handful of lines), this quiet stranger is seen skulking around Mike's building, where another murder is about to be discovered by our intrepid hero.

Spinning out of control, Mike begins to have nightmares about what could and would happen once the police are notified of his discovery.  Just like poor Elisha Cook Jr. (eternally the hapless loser) earlier on, who was convicted on mere circumstantial evidence, Mike begins to think back on things he has said in the past about his neighbor, the murder victim.  He becomes tortured by these thoughts and dreams and nightmares - all filmed with the most Noirish of flair, shadows and light intermingling to seemingly sever its characters trapped inside the film.  If this ain't Noir baby, I don't know what is.

Climaxing in a lackadaisical flurry of imminent danger - Lorre's unnamed stranger calmly going after Mike's fiancĂ©e, played by the striking, though rather bland actress Margaret Tallichet (then wife of William Wyler and less than a year away from early, baby-induced retirement at age twenty-seven) once she finds his secret out - Ingster's film may be a bit on the hurried side (the B-picture coming in at just 64 minutes) and doesn't really have time for much unnecessary plot points, but still manages to get its point across with a certain, shall we say Noirish, flair.
It is really the middle of the film - Mike's nightmares come to life in sharply define shadow and light play (photography heavy in that all-too-important chiaroscuro style) - where Ingster shines.  His beginning is mere middling set-up and his final coda - where a now free Elisha Cook Jr. grins his rather off-putting grin (creepier than Lorre's perhaps) and offers Mike and his soon-to-be bride a ride in his cab, seeming to show no hard feelings toward the man who helped almost electrocute his ass - is pure studio-demanded cheese (though one could make a case for Cook's embittered ex-con driving his passengers off a cliff and ending his and their misery, but that would be mere speculation).

It is this expressionistic centerpiece of Ingster's film that gives it the power (both visually and emotionally) it needs to have to become the thing it has become - the first Film Noir (well, the first American Film Noir) in cinematic history.  Taking the aforementioned German influences and weaving it with early sound crime drama and filming it with as much stylistic dread as one can muster in these dark shadowy moments, Stranger on the Third Floor (one of only three films ever directed by Ingster - he would later be a prominent TV producer), along with other early Noir such as The Maltese Falcon and This Gun For Hire, helped to usher in a whole new genre of cinema.  A genre that, along with the Western, is this cinephile's favourite.

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