As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I am participating in TCM and Ball State University’s #NoirSummer course. Of course, since I also have a job (which requires writing about movies anyway, but I digress…), I can’t actually sit and watch all 24 hours of films noir that are being shown every Friday on TCM in June and July. Sunday morning is my usual “DVR Theater” period, when I catch up on a movie or two that I recorded during the week. This morning, I went with the 1940 RKO classic Stranger on the Third Floor, directed by Boris Ingster.
Since the film itself is insanely brief, running at just 64 minutes, I’ll keep this post brief. Although Peter Lorre is top billed, the real stars of the film are John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet.
McGuire plays Mike, a reporter whose testimony convicted Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) for a murder he didn’t commit. When Mike realizes that his neighbor was killed, he lets his guilty conscious consume him. However, he did see a mysterious man (Lorre), who might have been the killer. His girlfriend Jane (Tallichet) convinces him to go to the police instead of running away and she goes off to find the mysterious man.
Most of the film is rather mundane, but the trip through Mike’s mind as he is overtaken by guilt looks like something out of a German expressionist film. And Lorre’s demented turn as the stranger keeps you engrossed, especially seeing how he torments Jane at the end.
Made in 1940, this is a very early example of film noir (remember, the U.S. hadn’t even entered World War II yet). It doesn’t have some key elements and it’s easy to see that there’s no femme fetale. Its ending might also seem a little too rosy. Had this been made a few years later, Joe probably would have actually been executed (like Dan Duryea’s character in Scarlet Street) and the Stranger part probably would have been built up. But when you’ve got to get the story done in an hour, extra fluff has to get cut. It does help a bit that the Stranger is so mysterious that we too might think that he only exists in Mike’s mind.
Stranger on the Third Floor aired on June 5. You can get it on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection.