Film Title: Stranger on the Third Floor
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Film Noir
- Peter Lorre
- John McGuire
- Margaret Tallichet
- Elisha Cook Jr.
Aside from the presence of Peter Lorre, Boris Ingster’s 1940 noir drama Stranger on the Third Floor is headlined by relative unknowns. Many suggest that a less recognizable cast is a good way to add to a film’s realism. In this case, it does; and, if any random person were to experience the story’s plot, this is what it would look like. Stranger is the first of only three films that Ingster would direct, but it easily wedged its way into history with the kind of white-knuckle approach often found in a charismatic Film Noir.
Mike Ward (John McGuire) is a reporter waiting for a big break to launch his career. He finds it when the owner of a local coffee shop is murdered across the street from his apartment building. Ward, the only witness to the crime, instantly becomes a local star after his article results in the accused perpetrator’s trial. Mike’s girlfriend Jane (Margaret Tallichet) is ready to marry him, but patiently waiting for the end of the trial so they can enjoy a more stable financial situation. Mike is set to testify against Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the killer, knowing that a conviction will undoubtedly lead Briggs to the electric chair. Briggs is found guilty (partly due to fingerprint evidence) and painfully maintains his innocence, crying for someone to believe him as he’s lead away. Initially unmoved, Mike begins to reconsider what he actually saw on the night of the murder as he walks home. Suddenly, he happens upon a mysterious lurker (Peter Lorre) sitting on his apartment steps. The man says nothing, but rather stares apprehensively at Mike as if guarding a dangerous secret. He wears a hat and an out-of-place scarf, which dangles from his neck to his midsection. He radiates with unspoken threats. Mike knows that something about the man is unnerving, but steps past him and into his building.
Mike’s neighbor in the adjacent apartment is a loud-snoring tattletale who runs to the landlady (Ethel Griffies) with the smallest complaints. He laments about Mike’s late-night typewriter usage, among other petty grievances. Mike is fed up with the neighbor, and remarks on a few occasions that he could kill him (though obviously an empty comment made in anger). That night, the shady stranger is once again seen loitering around on the inside of the building. This time, Mike unsuccessfully chases him. Returning to his floor, he realizes that his neighbor is not snoring, an almost inconceivable notion. Mike immediately suspects that his neighbor has been murdered; but, remembering that fingerprints convicted Joe Briggs, does not want to open the door to check. The madness of this uncertainly causes him to slip into a dream-like trance, imagining himself on trial for his neighbor’s murder. He mentally weaves through his unfavorable trial, conviction and eventual walk to execution. He snaps out of it and reassures himself that his neighbor must be alive. Nevertheless, after throwing caution to the wind, Mike opens the door to find him murdered in the same manner as the coffee shop owner, a slit throat. Could it have been the stranger?
Mike knows that unless he calls the police, he will look suspicious for not reporting the crime. When the police arrive, they give Mike the once over but seem interested when he mentions the stranger and the similarities in the coffee shop murder. By now, he is convinced that the stranger killed both men but has no evidence to support his theory. Jane is becoming increasingly frustrated with the unfolding drama and Mike’s wavering emotional stability. She wants to help but feels powerless until she sets out on her own quest to track the stranger down. She begins by pounding the pavement, questioning the neighbors and business owners in the area with the only physical description she has: “bulgy eyes and big lips”. No one has seen the stranger she’s describing. Jane is all but through, stepping in to a coffee shop for a cup before calling it a night. Just then, a soft voice is overheard. Jane turns to find the stranger standing next to her, ordering raw burgers to feed a stray dog outside. She follows him until he quickly turns to question her motives. Who is this stranger and why is he always lurking around? Did he kill the coffee shop owner and Mike’s snoring neighbor? What exactly does he want?
One of the most interesting things about this film is that Peter Lorre barely speaks. In fact, he does not utter a word until the very end. His entire role is based on expressions, which says a lot about his talent considering that his career began as talkies were descending on Hollywood. He was certainly no amateur by the time Stranger was filmed (he had the Mr. Moto films to his credit), but his iconic appearances with Humphrey Bogart in the 1940s would solidify him among the most revered supporting actors. As the stranger, his character was the primary foundation of the film and Lorre received top billing. John McGuire, as Mike Ward, exhibited the kind of normality and paranoia associated with the common man. He portrayed the medium fish in a small pond. His mannerisms are reminiscent of Joe Public, never quite knowing how to react to life’s speed bumps. Stranger was McGuire’s 17th film and probably his best considering it’s a major role. However, just two years later in 1942, and lasting until the end of his career in 1952, McGuire’s roles were largely uncredited (including his work as a plainclothesman in 1949’s Flamingo Road with Joan Crawford). Jane was played by Margaret Tallichet, another unfamiliar actress who only made a total of eight films. She did have an uncredited part (as Marion) in 1937’s A Star is Born and The Prisoner of Zenda, though her scenes in the latter were deleted. Tallichet retired after the birth of her second child. Although his part is a bit fleeting, something should also be said for Elisha Cook, Jr. Cook is known for playing helpless, victimized characters. In fact, he does it so well that one could assume he was playing himself. Here, as Joe Briggs, he’s on the defensive again. Briggs is a shaky-voiced, almost child-like man who seems destined to be taken. His outburst in the courtroom is slightly pathetic but anything less would be out of character. Cook was not too far into his career when he appeared in Stranger. Although he wasn’t a major star, he was always visible in the best films (Sergeant York, The Maltese Falcon, Ball of Fire, The Big Sleep). By the mid-1950s, he leaned more towards television work and continued on that path all the way up until the late 1980s. Cook also had a small role as Mr. Nicklas in the 1968 thriller Rosemary’s Baby.
Stranger on the Third Floor is currently unavailable on DVD. There was a VHS released by Turner Home Entertainment in 1991. Film Noir sets have become increasingly popular over the last couple of years. Studios such as Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal have released both celebrated and obscure noirs. If history is any guide, this film will receive the DVD treatment in due time, if for nothing else than as a nod to the influence of Peter Lorre.
How do you like your noirs? Gritty. Realistic. Thrilling. Classic. No matter which you choose, you’ll find this film a combination of everything. In terms of running time, it’s not the longest film in the world, but sometimes less is more. This is a late night on the couch type of story. The mystery element grips the viewer until the last minute and it’s the very thing that makes the film work. You don’t always need an all-star cast to create something memorable and Stranger on the Third Floor is the proof. In fact, one viewing may have you looking twice at the suspicious characters around your neighborhood.
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