Monday, February 21, 2011

MURDER AND AN INTELLIGENT MAN: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940)



I don’t know enough about film history to proclaim many absolutes about it, but in regard to origins it is largely agreed that one particular film can be pointed to as the first permutation of what eventually became known as the specifically American genre film noir. The Maltese Falcon (1941) may have provided a more specific and popular template for film noir’s intimate double-crosses and hard-boiled iconography (much of it via Dashiell Hammett, of course), and the graphic dynamism and experimental camerawork which Gregg Toland contributed to Citizen Kane (1941) may have edged film noir into its more expressionistic tendencies. But one film, though nowhere as close to as popular or influential as either of those established classics, predated them both by a year and is often cited as ground zero for film noir. Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) exhibits much of the genre’s recognizable tropes—cynicism directed at institutions; a tendency toward black humor regarding the fate of its protagonists; a first-person perspective from which to contemplate those nasty turns of fate; a brooding, portentous urban mousetrap lit with lamps whose light can’t possibly find every dark, dangerous alleyway or staircase; trench coats, fedoras and sinister figures scurrying through that mousetrap, lurking in the shadows; and a sense that, as Sean Axmaker suggests in his superb piece on the film, for all the dark impulses dredged up by the main character over the course of the movie’s literally nightmarish midsection the sunny disposition that ends the movie is a way of putting off troubled waters that still roil beneath the surface, waters cleared that will go all murky when the sun sets and darkness falls on the streets once again.


Whether or not Stranger on the Third Floor is actually the first film noir—and it is supposed that there is a certain value, whatever that might be, placed on being named first—one thing is certain as far as my own schooling in film—Stranger on the Third Floor was the first film noir I ever saw. As such it probably ranks then as even more influential in the development of my interest in pursuing the genres to which the movies reaches out, both backward and forward in time—the American postwar crime films most generally associated with the “film noir” appellation, but also with noir-enriched horror movies and, most importantly, to a familiarity and understanding of the German expressionist movement from which the movie’s most celebrated sequence derives its power. The movie was, for me, the gateway to a broader understanding of film history.

In 1971 my monster-loving friends and I latched onto a weekend horror movie program broadcasting out of Portland, Oregon called Sinister Cinema, hosted by local radio and TV personality Victor Ives. Sinister Cinema was very much in the mold of several other programs of its sort beaming out of local TV stations in the ‘70s, this one occupying the same time slot that four years later would be dominated by Saturday Night Live. But the difference between Sinister Cinema and other programs available to us on our meager small-town cable TV system, shows like Bob Wilkins’ (and then John Stanley’s) Creature Features out of San Francisco, Jack Joseph out of KOLO-TV in Reno or, at the bottom of the barrel, Phil’s Philms out of Medford, Oregon, which starred local personality Phil Holman, was a significant one. Wilkins, Stanley, Joseph and Holman didn’t care about the movies—they usually actively disdained them, and Wilkins and Stanley were famous for inviting viewers to turn their program off because the movie was so often terrible. They were cynical purveyors of the “so good it’s bad” school of sarcastic disregard, apparently uninterested in what good and seductive elements that might have drawn viewers to the sci-fi and horror genre in the first place.


Ives and his stock company, however, featured decent local production values on Sinister Cinema and though they often cracked jokes at the expense of the movies they showed, they also were very good at providing background information on the films that fed the curiosity of viewers like us who wanted to know more. (Sometimes it was good to have a second source though— in this clip Ives informs us that John Whale directed Frankenstein and not James.) But as Sinister Cinema became an established hit, it didn’t get wackier a la Wilkins and Stanley—it became a consistent source for sci-fi and horror films of all stripes, from Universal classics to ‘50s atomic sci-fi to Japanese rubber-monster romps, and sometimes it extended to films with only tangential relations to horror films, films that were either easy to obtain as filler or, assuming a certain intelligence in the programming, films booked because they could be easily linked to other movies that could be more readily classified as “horror.”

I don’t remember what the first feature was the night Victor Ives’ commenced with the second selection, Stranger on the Third Floor, at about 1:30 in the morning. It could have been something like Mad Love (1935) or perhaps even The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), but it could have just as easily been something completely unrelated to Peter Lorre. But whatever it was, if Sinister Cinema was showing it I knew it would be worth staying up for. And of course it was. I would give the movie a shot for Lorre, of course, but as anyone who has seen the movie knows, Lorre has comparatively little screen time, maybe 10 minutes total out of 63-- occasional teases of the famously odd-looking actor are sprinkled throughout, but most of Lorre’s performance is backloaded to the last few minutes of the film. But it didn’t take me long to be seduced by the film’s insinuating confidence—it was the movie itself, not Lorre, that made the first and best impression.


Stranger on the Third Floor is built around concerns that would become typical of the film noir genre. Young Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) is wrongly convicted on circumstantial evidence of the murder of a local coffee shop owner. The testimony that convicts him comes from “star reporter” Michael Ward (John McGuire), who lives across the street from the diner and stumbled upon the defendant leaning over the man’s body after apparently murdering him. The testimony is truthful as far as Ward goes—he relates what he saw—but it’s given in a trial that is a textbook miscarriage of justice, from a narcoleptic judge and jury to attorneys on both sides whose only concern is getting it all over with. Ward’s fiancée Jane (Margaret Tallichet) has doubts from the beginning about Briggs’ guilt, and when Briggs shrieks with panic midtrial in proclaiming his innocence, she runs out of the courtroom in horror, unable to deal with her suspicion that Briggs is telling the truth and that her fiancé’s testimony will send Briggs to his death. When Briggs is found guilty, Jane’s suspicions begin to eat away at Michael and the film begins to deal with a couple of familiar narrative tropes that will send the movie toward the hellscape at its center.


Mike’s reporter colleague (Cliff Clark) tells him at one point, “There’s murder in every intelligent man’s heart,” and Mike begins to suspect he’s right. Our hero becomes increasingly overwhelmed with his own past threats to off a nosy neighbor (Charles Halton) after he sees the Stranger (Lorre) at the neighbor’s door and begins to worry that the man, an unrepentant snorer suddenly gone silent, has in fact been killed. It is Mike’s spiraling terror at the prospect of being swept up in exactly the kind of tide of suspicion that carried Briggs to his doom that inspires the movie’s most examined sequence, a superbly unnerving nightmare into which director Boris Ingster unleashes a hysterical and haunting series of gorgeously foreboding images, each loaded with twisted perspective, negative space hanging over the characters like thunderclouds, shadows slashing at that negative space and leaving and the claw marks of an angry god, and other visual indicators of swirling dementia the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the heyday of the Expressionist movement in pre-war German film, and never in a film made in this country. (Ingster, oddly, never made good on the promise he showed here, directing only two more minor films before going into a career as a television producer).


But as Mike acts to circumvent the fate that swallowed up Briggs, the movie shifts its tone back to the only slightly exaggerated backlot urban milieu to focus on Jane, who decides to do some investigating on her after hearing Mike describe the stranger he saw coming out of his neighbor’s flat. Inconspicuously, the movie trades in the expressionist flourishes that link it (and its star) to a fertile period in German film (and film history) for another familiar narrative thread to which Lorre, who previously starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, was also linked. The movie suggests, and rather too late in the game to leave much time for the exploration of the notion, that the Stranger may have leapt straight from Mike’s id, a personification of the crescendo of guilt building over his participation in Briggs conviction which now threatens to ensnare him as well. It’s a form of the Hitchcockian doubling motif that would later be so important for the popular British director upon coming to America, but in this regard the Stranger on the Third Floor is no Strangers on a Train.


Almost as soon as Jane meets Lorre, again in the diner where the initial murder took place, Lorre has confessed his crimes and begins to put some seriously homicidal moves on Jane as well. “Did they send you to take me back?” Lorre intones to a now profoundly spooked Jane, and thusly the Stranger is reduced from nightmarish psychological manifestation to a somewhat more stock lunatic asylum escapee as the movie bolts toward its goose bump-inducing conclusion. There’s not much room for mystery finally, but even so the movie, with its shadows and portents intact, carries with it an emotional jolt hefty enough to register on the landscape where all future noirs would be composed. And for a young viewer as yet unfamiliar with M, Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, Stranger’s brief but potent experiments in expressionism and personified guilt, seen in the eerie blue light of a black-and-white TV on Sinister Cinema with all the lights in the room off, were all the taste I needed to want to know more about the promises it made which were fulfilled by closer relationships with those other films. And certainly this was where my own fascination with film noir, which continues to this day, nearly 40 years later, got its start.


Much of that fascination which Stranger on the Third Floor embodies has to be laid at the feet of two of Ingster’s illustrious and influential collaborators. Much has been made of the contributions of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who here helped originate the visual motifs and strategies of shadows and objects used to visually imprison characters within the frame of film noir, ultimately putting his talents to use in shooting Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), which some cite as the greatest of all films noir. Musuraca’s style itself was an extension of German expressionism, in which he used the complete tonal range of black and white imagery to express the ambiguity so often found festering in the hearts of the characters in his films. But his mastery of chiaroscuro lighting and other stylistic abstractions which lent themselves brilliantly to high-contrast black and white images translated to other genres within his work at RKO Studios as well.


Just as important to the development of the unique and influential style of Stranger on the Third Floor was the brilliant art director and set designer Van Nest Polglase. Six Oscar nominations greeted Polglase’s career in Hollywood, including one for Citizen Kane. Polglase, who headed the RKO art department in the 1930s, was responsible for the studio’s distinctive amalgam of Art Deco, neoclassic and avant-garde design which were a hallmark of the studio’s musicals of the day. But in Stranger on the Third Floor he creates a strangely confined environment full of realistic touches and sad detail—the reporter Ward at one point sidles up to the glass window of the coffee shop whose owner has been murdered and notes how easily the name “Nick” can be replaced by “Jack” on the storefront signage, Polglase’s design emphasizing the truth of the observation with subtlety and precision. And of course Polglase is key to the film’s gasp-inducing shift in tone into that dream sequence—the vast spaces in which Michael finds himself imprisoned, warped versions of courtrooms and cell blocks which seem to undulate with subconscious fear—are a brilliantly abstracted visual repositioning of the kinds of grandeur he routinely conjured for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The question of whether or not Stranger on the Third Floor is or isn’t the first film noir becomes in my mind at least, far less important as soon as I begin to watch the picture and get caught up once again in its intriguing psychological web. In its influence and style and sheer force the movie can be seen and felt rippling through the 70 years of film history that have come since its release, in films securely established within and entirely unrelated to the genre of film noir. That is a point which, perhaps unlike those claims of primacy to an entire genre, is inarguable. Sure, it’s fun to be first, but it’s better to last, and the enduring electricity of Stranger on the Third Floor has definitely lasted.

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For more great reading on Stranger on the Third Floor, please check out these fine pieces written by Sean Axmaker, Doug Cummings, Jeremy Arnold, John Greco and The Night Editor. You can order Stranger on the Third Floor in a beautiful DVD edition—the movie has never looked better—from the Warner Archives.

And though this is technically the last day of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blog-a-thon, you can still donate to the cause of preservation of these films, and I would heartily encourage you to do so.

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