Stranger On The Third Floor, 1940. 10/10

A psychological thriller in which Peter Lorre is simply The Stranger. Let’s just call him the murderer as well. A reporter, Michael Ward (John McGuire), tries to clear Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.) of one murder, only to end up in a similar fix himself.

There’s Mike’s fiancee, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), the creepy Meng (Charles Halton), Mrs. Kane (Ethel Griffies), Martin (Cliff Clark), and for courtroom drama, the D.A (Charles Waldron), and the judge (Oscar O’Shea).

A cutesy drugstore counter scene with Mike and Jane starts us off. Then, there’s cuteness of a different order, a poker game in the pressroom. Mike’s hot stuff since…this flashback lets us know.

Mike describes finding Briggs on the night of the first murder. Briggs had been seen arguing with the victim, Nick; then, that night, Mike saw Briggs standing over the body. Brigg’s alibi was that he felt contrite after the argument with Nick, so he went to pay up a small debt later, only to find Nick dead.

Poor Briggs (meaning Cook); he’s the guiltiest looking person imaginable. Anyway, back to the present: Nick is beginning to wonder about Brigg’s guilt–basically his testimony is throwing the switch on the guy. Martin, a colleague, talks to both Mike and Jane about it.

Martin could really care less if Briggs is guilty or not. After the expected guilty verdict, Mike’s stewing. So is Jane–she’s pretty much his conscience. Walking the streets, he starts to daydream, ruminating on the case. He returns to Nick’s diner.

Uh–oh. He’s face to face with The Stranger on the landing opposite the diner. He lives in the same building as Nick. He sees someone skulk around the hallway; we see it’s our Stranger. Mike pursues him down the stairs, but the guy escapes out onto the street.

He suspects that something has happened in the building. So he takes a knife, and…first, time out for a flashback at Nick’s. Mike and Martin are eating up when Meng enters. He’s a sort of fussbudget “a worm.” We establish that he’d sooner be done with Meng than bother to get the mail.

Ok, but then, another flashback: he brings Jane up to his room for the first time. It’s a charming, romantic scene. They’re both tentative and shy, but obviously attracted to each other. Once again, it’s Meng who crosses his path, can’t have a woman in a “respectable house,” you know.

We can figure that Meng is going to get it; and that Mike will get fingered in the same way Briggs did for Nick’s death. Back to the present. He realizes that nothing’s happened yet. Sleep is no help, as Mike has nightmares that he’s being interrogated and railroaded for Meng’s death.

This montage is excellent, very Expressionist, and goes on and on. Pretty much puts us in the Twilight Zone. Not only is this hallucinatory stuff great, but, obviously we still can’t know if anything’s happened to good old Meng. The best touch is that The Stranger is in this psychological court room. And, on the nightmarish electric chair, who looks on but Briggs?

Meng himself has the last word; then, thankfully, Mike wakes up. Of course his first impulse is to look in on Meng; who, naturally, is dead. A complete replay of Brigg’s dilemma. The only question is, will he call the police or Jane? Jane. They meet in the nearby park to discuss the situation.

He wants to flee; she wants “to figure things out.” He now realizes that the same person did both murders (the m.o. is identical). So, reason prevails, he goes back to the scene. He tells the cops what he knows–including the deal with the killer’s knife.

The D.A. and Lieutenant listen to him, but seem skeptical. Except for the simple fact that Mike has found the bodies of both victims, making him a material witness (meaning he must also be the murderer). Jane turns sleuth, and goes around the neighborhood asking if anyone has seen The Stranger.

No soap. More or less distraught, she goes into a diner, and viola! It’s him. She goes up to him outside, but doesn’t know what to do. She accompanies him; trying to freak him out by discussing the murders. He describes his time in an asylum. She adroitly gains his confidence to the point that he confesses to killing Meng.

That noteworthy busybody was on the verge of doing an actual good deed–turning in The Stranger–so our boy “had to kill him.” Desperate, Jane gets turned away from a strange building; he gets jittery and now, on the deserted streets, he chases after her.

Luckily he’s hit by a passing truck. Great denouement: he confesses to the cop on the scene before dying. A final return to the drugstore counter scene. Then Briggs, also now free and clear, is the cabbie taking them to capitalize on their marriage licenses. The end.

Excellent in every way. This is one crime mystery (many credit it with being the first film noir) in which the romance is much more than a back-drop or subplot. McGuire and Tallichet have a wonderful naturalness in their scenes together that, like some couples in love, they achieve a sort of fusion–soul mates.

As good as that works, the plot and cinematography could not be better. Here’s a simple story amplified by tension, stress, anxiety, and, built by Expressionist layers, via the flashbacks and dream sequences, in effect partnering Rod Serling with Franz Kafka. All of this in an hour.

The supporting cast antes up commendably. The nightmarish atmosphere (with the notable exemption of the breezy frame story at the drugstore counter) is sealed-in by the slightly oddball personalities buzzing around Jane and Mike throughout.

There’s a sort of joy to seeing something done well–which has nothing to do with the subject matter. I think that’s because we’re witnessing art. Yes, murder is the subject. But, for the most part, we see and feel thoughts and emotions, not gunplay, fights, or actually any violence.

The Stranger getting killed by the truck is oddly cathartic. Plus, we do get the redeeming safety net, so to speak, of an ordinary, believable couple whom it’s easy to identify with. Without any missteps we have the bizarre and irrational alongside the authentic and down-to-earth.

A textbook bit of elegant film-making. 10/10

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