Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Target #33: The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, Boris Ingster)


Directed by: Boris Ingster
Written by: Frank Partos (story & screenplay), Nathanael West (uncredited)

Watching The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), I was conscious of being present at a birth: the birth of film noir, at least in its most readily recognisable form. As if to announce impending delivery, the film's title is superimposed over the classically noirish image of a man's figure – silhouetted behind a pair of blinds – smoking contemplatively at an apartment window. Boris Ingster's visual sensibility, with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, is very strong, despite a relatively slight budget; the film's centrepiece dream sequence is a grippingly-surrealistic succession of nightmarish pessimism, as the story's minor hero is swept along towards execution by the cruel, indifferent hand of fate. Even so, it is still a rather shaky start for a movement that would, for the following two decades, shape and define American cinema. I don't expect that The Stranger on the Third Floor, a low-budget nonentity, had all that much influence on its successors – I suppose that The Maltese Falcon (1941) and High Sierra (1941) were responsible for most of that.

Ingster obviously filmed his picture on a very modest budget; Peter Lorre only appeared because he owed two extant days on his RKO contract, and the extra short running-time suggests a production filmed on the cheap. Perhaps fortunately, the filmmakers recognised that 64 minutes was inadequate time to attempt anything elaborate, and so the film dedicates itself towards one basic idea: the fallibility of circumstantial evidence. This notion is drilled so emphatically that its message comes across almost as a public service announcement. In many film noir pictures, there is more than meets the eye – in this one, what you see is exactly what you get. I had been hoping that the annoying neighbour's murder would ultimately be revealed as an act of violence committed subconsciously by Mike Ward (John McGuire) in his sleep, but, alas, Ingster would probably have considered even the suggestion an insult to his film's noble message.

The cast of The Stranger on the Third Floor is largely average at best, with only top-billed star Peter Lorre (in virtually a cameo role) managing to liven up the proceedings, as usual. The two main co-stars, John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet, do adequately in the film's more relaxed moments, but introduce a dramatic situation and suddenly they become wildly theatrical, exaggerating every emotion to the point of self-parody. Of course, Lorre does this, as well, but he's one of the few actors who've ever been able to pull it off. Channelling his tormented child-killer in Fritz Lang's M (1931), Lorre brings a similarly-tragic pathos to this role; not an entirely frightening character, but quite obviously insane, and liable to do anything. Elisha Cook, Jr. – the mistreated stooge that no noir should be without – attempts rather unsuccessfully to show some sincerity (though he reminded me of Mickey Rooney in a couple of scenes), but he's always been better when playing the faux tough-guy who inevitably catches a bullet in the back.
6/10

Currently my #10 film of 1940:
1) The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)
2) The Grapes Of Wrath (John Ford)
3) Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Fantasia (Various)
5) Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen)
6) Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
8) His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
9) The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)
10) The Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster) *

1 comment:

Who Is Afraid of Tim Burton? Two?... said...

Hi! Andrew,

"Watching The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), I was conscious of being present at a birth: the birth of film noir, at least in its most readily recognisable form.

As if to announce impending delivery, the film's title is superimposed over the classically noirish image of a man's figure – silhouetted behind a pair of blinds – smoking contemplatively at an apartment window.


I have to agree with both of your sentences about the film Strangers on the Third Floor
completely.
Thanks, for sharing!
DeeDee ;-D