Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
One question. Where’s Peter Lorre’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor?
If Anthony Quinn can win the award for a similarly short role in Lust For Life then surely the Academy could have at least sent a nomination Lorre’s way. But then again in these early days of Hollywood they didn’t really champion the “B” films when it came to the award ceremonies.
Noir fans will probably be aware of this 64 minute release from RKO. Often referred to as the first Noir feature it is a perfectly nightmarish thriller built around Lorre’s stranger. The film opens with another actor long associated with the Noir genre. Elisha Cook Jr. is on trial for his life and due to circumstantial evidence is on his way to the gallows. Upon hearing the sentence of guilt Cook is heartbreakingly brilliant as he cries his innocence while being dragged from the courtroom.
This sets the plot in motion as the conscience of leading man John McGuire takes over in a perfectly distorted dream sequence that is one of the films biggest highlights. It’s his testimony that has condemned Cook to the chair. What if he’s wrong? Throughout the nightmare sequence he finds himself in Cook’s position where no one will listen as he pleads innocence. It’s one of those scenes that you know is unlike anything you’ll see in other films of the era which makes it all the more special.To help prompt the dream sequence there’s a wonderfully staged sequence of Lorre creeping through a door and being chased down a shadowy staircase by McGuire.
I guess we have to point at director Boris Ingster for this. What’s hard to fathom is the fact that the man never directed another film for nine years and only one more after that. He wound up in television serving as producer on shows like the cult fave The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Looking back from our vantage point, this has to be considered a bit of a crime in itself.
As for the legendary Lorre? He’s pitch perfect here as the “man with the protruding eyes”. His powerful appearance opposite leading lady Margaret Tallichet lures us in at first by creating sympathy for his tortured character before unleashing the madman we know him to be. He’s truly frightening here and this one shouldn’t be missed for both Lorre and the Noir factor that is wonderfully staged in this “B” classic.
This one turns up regularly on TCM and is also available through the Warner Archive Collection which is currently sitting on my shelf.