The first film noir: ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’ stakes a claim

Stranger on the Third Floor/1940/RKO Radio Pictures/64 min.

“Stranger,” with its dramatic look, broke new cinematic ground.

“Stranger on the Third Floor,” with its dramatic Expressionistic look, broke new cinematic ground.

There’s no definitive answer to the question of which movie is the first film noir but some experts make a case for “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940, Boris Ingster) and it’s a pretty good argument. Others cite 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” by John Huston and some film historians maintain that “Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder) holds the title.

Of the three directors, Ingster, who had worked with Sergei Eisenstein in Russia, is the least distinguished and “Stranger” lacks the makings of a great film. Now, 74 years after it was made, “Stranger” feels somewhat dated and contrived, but it’s indisputable that Ingster’s B movie – with its dramatic look and disturbing psychological theme – broke new cinematic ground.

John McGuire plays Michael Ward, an energetic and ambitious reporter for a New York City paper. Mike needs a raise so he can marry his girlfriend, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), an office worker with no last name. She’s beautiful, sweet, loyal and resourceful, i.e. the perfect wife and essentially an extension of John’s personality.

“Stranger” uses compelling visuals to convey its disturbing psychological theme.

“Stranger” uses compelling visuals to convey its disturbing psychological theme.

Mike snares a $12/week raise not for breaking a story but for testifying in a murder trial. He tells the court that he saw a weasely-looking kid named Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.) standing over the slain body of a lunchroom proprietor. Mike’s statement brings a conviction and the death sentence for Briggs, who already has a record.

But slowly, anxiety and fear start to eat away at Mike: What if he’s wrong and Briggs is innocent?  Back in his room at Mrs. Kane’s boarding house, the usually cocksure Mike is startled when he sees a shifty-eyed Stranger (Peter Lorre, whose small but crucial part got him top billing) with a long white scarf. Just as quickly as he appears, the Stranger vanishes.

It occurs to Mike that he usually hears the snoring of his fellow boarder Mr. Meng (Charles Halton), a meddling busybody, whom Mike dislikes. The silence makes Mike wonder if Meng met with foul play and he begins to fixate on what might have happened.

More than once Mike has been steamed enough to talk of killing Meng. Of course, he didn’t mean it, but his landlady (Ethel Griffies) and Jane both heard him say it. And if Briggs can be convicted on flimsy evidence, what’s to save Mike from a similar fate? Ingster then introduces a kaleidoscopic nightmare sequence, both stunning and scary, as Mike tosses and turns with his conscience. When he wakes, he barges into Meng’s room and, sure enough, his neighbor is dead. Mike goes to the police and, playing out the paranoia of his dream, finds himself under suspicion for both murders. After all, he found both bodies.

Jane (Margaret Talichet) functions as the moral compass for Mike (John McGuire)

Jane (Margaret Tallichet), an office worker with no last name, functions as the moral compass for Mike (John McGuire).

A call to the always-enterprising Jane spurs her to comb the streets looking for the real killer and eventually she evens out those finicky scales of justice. Now can she get that Bloomingdale’s bridal registry filled out? Sigh.

“Stranger,” though hokey and pat, is a landmark in the history of film noir.

Budapest-born Frank Partos conceived the story and wrote the screenplay. His other writing credits include the ’40s thrillers “The Uninvited,” “The Snake Pit,” and “The House on Telegraph Hill.”

Partos and Ingster bring an unmistakable stamp of German Expressionism to their work as they explore the workings of fundamental human emotions such as guilt, remorse and fear. There is a palpable sense of alienation and doom.

Like many directors of B-movies, Ingster made the most of what he had, which was a low-budget, low-profile flick. Most notably, he deserves high marks for creative, compelling visuals. The shadow of the Venetian blinds at the courthouse, thin horizontal bars stretching over the accused (Briggs) and symbolizing his imminent incarceration, became an essential element of film noir’s look and style. Similarly, trippy nightmare sequences became a hallmark of the genre.

Peter Lorre played in "Stranger," "The Maltese Falcon" and "M."

Peter Lorre played in “Stranger,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “M.”

The sets of “Stranger on the Third Floor” could be re-creations of famous theater stages in Dresden or Berlin at the height of the Expressionist movement – sparely furnished, carefully composed, with bold, geometric black and white patterns signifying indifference, helplessness and frustration. The courtroom resembles an auditorium and the newspaper with the huge headline “Murder” draws on Beaux Arts theater posters.  The stylized, sleeping jury members seem like dancers in repose.

Most memorable of all is the masterful acting of Peter Lorre, who ratchets up the tension level as he effortlessly conveys the warped frisson his villain derives from random killings. Lorre and Cook, another stalwart film-noir player, would reunite the next year in “The Maltese Falcon.” The contributions of the much-parodied Lorre are sometimes undervalued, perhaps because we forget how much he shaped the portrayal of a man with a sick mind, lending depth and flamboyance in equal measure. He started that foray nearly 10 years before – introducing one of the most memorable psychopaths in cinema, a child murderer, in Fritz Lang’s “M” from 1931.

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The Noir File: Early Germanic examples, a wicked Western and noir through New Wave eyes

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK

Breathless” (1960, Jean-Luc Godard). Thursday, Nov. 8, 6 p.m. (5 p.m.)

A guy named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, sings of a girl named Patricia (Jean Seberg), finds a gun and in the process reinvents film noir à la the New Wave.

That’s “Breathless,” the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 “Citizen Kane” – another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s – changed the ways we look at film. It changed also the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about them, and perhaps a bit the ways we look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us all believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies, you could grab a camera, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could make a movie not according to industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940, Boris Ingster). Saturday, Nov. 3, 7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.)

Elisha Cook Jr. plays a hapless patsy accused of murder in “Stranger.”

In this knockout of a B-movie, a breezy newspaper reporter (John McGuire) and his plucky lady friend (Margaret Tallichet, later Mrs. William Wyler) descend into a mad, bad dream. The reporter testifies against a hapless patsy accused of murder (Elisha Cook Jr.), sees him convicted and then finds himself facing a murder charge of his own. Meanwhile, the real murderer may just be that strange little man with a long scarf (Peter Lorre) who prowls around the streets, looking sad and mad and dangerous, as only Peter Lorre can.

Directed by Latvian émigré Boris Ingster, “Stranger” is often cited as the first film noir. And indeed, it has a lot of the elements, all suddenly jelling: the dark city streets, the pathological characters, the wise-cracking reporters, the tough cops and the sense of impending doom. It has Nicholas Musuraca cinematography, Roy Webb music and, as a bonus, art direction by Van Nest Polglase (“Citizen Kane”). Most of all, it has one of the screen’s truly memorable nightmare sequences: an eerie delve into crime and punishment, full of wild angles, dark shadows and insane persecutions.

Sunday, Nov. 4

12 a.m. (9 p.m.) “Pandora’s Box” (1929, G. W. Pabst). One of the great German silent films and one of the great precursors of film noir: G. W. Pabst’s somber, relentless tale of the playgirl-turned-prostitute Lulu (the sublime Louise Brooks), whose stunning, black-banged beauty helps make her one of the most appealing and tragic of femme fatales. (Silent, with music and intertitles.)

Thursday, Nov. 8

The three treasure hunters strike gold, but they also hit a vein of darkness.

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.) “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948, John Huston).

Based on the classic novel by the mysterious B. Traven, a lacerating portrayal of greed, the movie is a classic as well. “Treasure” is perhaps the finest work by writer-director (and here, for the first time, actor), John Huston. It’s one of the great westerns, a supreme western noir, one of the best literary adaptations and one of the great Humphrey Bogart pictures.

Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs, a down and out American in 1925 in Tampico, Mexico, who hooks up with two other Yanks: tough but decent Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and fast-talking, grizzled, expert prospector Howard (John’s father Walter Huston; he won the Oscar). The three treasure hunters strike gold in the Sierra Madre mountains, but they also hit a vein of darkness: the discord and violence that sudden riches can bring.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Sunrise” (1927, F. W. Murnau). Murnau’s first film in Hollywood is a beautiful-looking cinematic ballad of a good wife (Oscar-winner Janet Gaynor), a bad woman (Margaret Livingston), a confused husband torn between them (George O’Brien) and the screen’s most poetic train journey from country to city. Selected in the last Sight and Sound film poll as one of the 10 greatest films of all time. It is. (Silent, with music and intertitles.)

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