“Stranger on the Third Floor” was a minor B film that probably came and went with little if any attention being paid by critics and the general film audience. Fans of Peter Lorre may have been lured to the film by one of his rare non Mr. Moto starring roles only to probably be disappointed when they discovered he was only on camera for maybe no more than five or six minutes, though he plays the “stranger” mentioned in the title. The critics did not help. Bosley Crowthers of The New York Times welcomed the opportunity for first time director Boris Ingster, but called the film confusing and pretentious. He further stated, “it looks as though his inspiration has been derived from a couple of heavy French and Russian films, a radio drama or two and an underdone Welsh rarebit, all taken in quick succession.” Of course, this is the same critic who twenty-seven years later would denigrate “Bonnie and Clyde” and eventually lose his job with the paper over it.
John McGuire, a little known actor whose career goes back to 1932, plays the true lead, Mike Ward, a newspaper reporter whose big break arrives when he is an eyewitness to a murder of a man whose throat was slashed. Ward testifies at the trial of the accused, a nervous Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), and because of Ward’s testimony, Briggs is sentenced to die in the electric chair, though he continues to proclaim his innocents.
After the trial, Ward begins to have some doubts about what he saw. He is haunted by thoughts that he may have accused an innocent man, who may be wrongly executed. Mike’s uncertainty increases when he spots a creepy looking stranger lurking around his apartment building. Mike gives chase to the man, but he disappears into the night. There is a surrealistic dream sequence in which Mike is arrested for the murder of his neighbor, a man he previously had an augment with and wished dead. Soon after, his next-door neighbor is really found dead with his throat slashed… exactly like the first murder. The police begin to suspect Mike may be the killer since he witnessed both murders. No one other than Mike seems to have seen the stranger with the bulging eyes, and a scarf, that Mike is now insisting is the killer. With Mike under suspicion, it is left up to his fiancée Jane (Margaret Tallichet) to hunt down the mysterious stranger and clear Mike.
The film runs a fast 64 minutes and is always mentioned as one of the earliest examples, if not the first, of what became known as film noir. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca certainly has many of the elements of noir, the dark shadows, expressionist lighting, voice over, innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit and the off-kilter camera angles. Musuraca would go on to photograph such noir style films as “Cat People”, “Curse of the Cat People”, “The Seventh Victim”, “Out of the Past” and “Blood on the Moon.”
Peter Lorre’s “starring” role was a result of his owing RKO a couple days of work that remained on his contract. He, as usual, is extremely effective as the creepy bulging eyed stranger badly in need of some dental work. Lorre is also oddly sympathetic in the role, a trait similar to his character in Fritz Lang’s classic German expressionistic film “M.” Despite his limited screen time, he is the acting highlight in the film along with a young Elisha Cook Jr. who plays Joe Briggs, the wrongly accused taxi driver. The following year of course, Cook and Lorre would appear in another film together, the classic “The Maltese Falcon”, a film that is considered noirs first big hit. Lorre and Cook along with cinematographer Musuraca would become mainstays in the world of film noir.
The two leads, John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet are barely adequate and it is unmistakably evident why they did not advance up to “A” production films. Tallichet’s career was short-lived making only two more films after “Stranger” then retiring to raise a family.
In between the highlights, though there is some creaky material. Besides the previously mentioned mediocre acting of the two leads, the judge at the trial seems to be in another world during the proceedings only to “wake up” when he is actually asked a question. Additionally, the ending regresses back to the typical Hollywood happy conclusion. The dark dangerous streets disappear into the bright sunlight.
The script was co-written by Frank Partos and Nathanael West, author of “The Day of the Locust.” Director Boris Ingster, who would only direct two more films would go on to write and or produce a number of TV shows including “The Man from UNCLE.”
Overall, “Stranger on the Third Floor” is a prime example how filmmakers working with minimal production values, produced a work, that has no artistic ambition, no self consciousness, no gloss yet rises to a higher level of creativity than over produced highly ambitious “A” productions that ring no more true despite the millions of dollars spent.