THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR

13:06:17

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At Film Night we have a protocol in place for televised live football matches, and it is as follows:  Chris Corner watches the first half at his house, and then as soon as the ref blows his whistle for half-time he sets off walking at a brisk pace. This ensures his arrival at Film Night HQ just in time to watch England bugger it all up against France in the second half. One particularly poor assault on goal, an attempt at a bit of technical wizardry by England, which rather than resulting in the ball rocketing  into the French net, instead resulted in the striker (can’t remember which hapless flop it actually was) making no contact with the ball whatsoever and landing on his arse. The entire sorry scenario was summed up by Mr. Corner as ‘Fancy Rubbish‘. The whole of English football in a nutshell.

Obviously the football takes up a bit of time, so we generally try and programme a fairly short film for the main feature. At just an hour and three minutes long The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) seemed a perfect fit. I remember watching this film on a tiny portable black and white tv when I was working at a hospital in Nottingham or Derby and it left an impression, so I was looking forward to seeing it again.

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Directed by Latvian born Boris Ingster, The Stranger on the Third Floor is sometimes considered to be the first film noir. Of course other films had elements of noir within them, but the narrative arc of TSOTTF and the general atmosphere of sweaty desperation in an ominous cityscape places all the required tropes together as a coherent whole. They had of course been producing this kind of dark cinema in France since the 1930s (hence the French expression film noir), but this is certainly one of the first American forays into such deep recesses of shadowy urban angst.

The film was not received well on its initial release. Reviewers called it derivative, pretentious and absurdly overwrought. The two lead actors (John McGuire as Mike and Margaret Tallichet as Jane) go through their scripted paces adequately but their roles luckily require little subtlety. Neither of them went on to forge creditable careers in the industry. Despite only having about five minutes of screen time, Peter Lorre was given top billing as the ‘stranger’. His appearance in this low budget B movie was due to the fact that he owed RKO a couple of day’s work on his contract.

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The story centres around Mike, a young reporter whose evidence is about to send a kid (Elisha Cook Jr.) to the electric chair for murder. As the gravity of the judgement haunts Mike, he begins to feel that maybe the kid wasn’t guilty after all. This doubt is heightened when he spots a weird, creepy stranger lurking inside the tenement block. A second identical murder leads Mike to be the suspect himself and, despite Jane never having actually clapped eyes on the stranger before, in order to clear her fiance’s name she needs to find Lorre’s bulgy-eyed fiend before it’s too late.

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The good thing about these short and cheap films was the freedom the studio gave the directors. Without executives breathing down their necks, they were pretty much left to their own devices allowing for experimentation (as long as it didn’t cost too much) and innovation. The camera work by Nicholas Musuraca is marvellous. Diagonal black lines slice the screen, shadows are impenetrably inky and the stylised expressionism of the hallucinatory dream sequence lifts the film well out of its Poverty Row roots.

Musuraca went on to paint with light and darkness over many of my personal favourites: ‘Cat People‘, ‘Curse of the Cat People‘, ‘Blood on the Moon‘, ‘The Seventh Victim‘ and the best of all film noirs ‘Out of the Past‘. Unfortunately no amount of fancy camerawork, dream sequences or flashbacks could alter the scoreline France 3, England 2.

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The feeling you get when England have lost again

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