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STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (director: Boris Ingster; screenwriter: Frank Partos/story by Frank Partos; cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca; editor: Harry Marker; music: Roy Webb; cast: Peter Lorre (Stranger), John McGuire (Mike Ward), Margaret Tallichet (Jane), Charles Waldron (DA), Elisha Cook Jr. (Joe Briggs), Charles Halton (Meng), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Kane), Cliff Clark (Martin); Runtime: 64; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lee Marcus; RKO; 1940)
“This low-budget B film is thought by many to be the first true film noir.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bizarre gem about a newspaper reporter’s guilt over sending an innocent man to the electric chair because of his testimony. It offers a cynical look at the entire legal system and how most people are indifferent to injustice, but comes down particularly hard on those who are part of the system: judges, cops, juries, crime reporters, prosecutors, and defense attorneys for their lack of concern in seeing that justice is carried out fairly. Even though the film begins and ends on a trite happy note, it cannot take away a powerful dream sequence that indicts society for its callous attitude. Peter Lorre shines as the real lunatic murderer, in a role that is similar to the one he played in Fritz Lang’s M.

The film noir is directed by Boris Ingster; it’s based on a story and screenplay by Frank Partos. Following the lead of German expressionism, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca makes great use of the shadows and the studio designed dark urban surroundings in his Baroque shooting style. This low-budget B film is thought by many to be the first true film noir.

Mike Ward (John McGuire) is a young reporter living in a gloomy Manhattan rooming house, with an obnoxious next-door neighbor, Mr. Meng (Charles Halton), who complains of the noise when Mike is typing at night. Meng is backed up by the irritable landlady (Ethel Griffies), who treats Mike with contempt. What Mike has going for him is his lovely fiancée, Jane (Margaret Tallichet ), whom he plans to marry as soon as he makes enough to support her in a new apartment. Mike gets the opportunity when he becomes the star witness at a murder trial, and his newspaper gives him a $15 raise and allows him to do a byline. Neighborhood cafe owner Nick had his throat slit when Mike walked in and saw taxi driver Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) standing over the corpse. Briggs fled and was picked up by the police while packing his bag, saying only that he returned to the cafe because Mike had previously lent him money for a meal and he wanted to repay him. At the trial it comes out that Briggs previously served time as a youth for robbing a gas station. On the basis of Mike’s testimony and a case built around circumstantial evidence, Briggs is given a death sentence. Mike is haunted by Briggs’ deafening screams after the guilty verdict is announced that “I didn’t kill him” and by Jane’s belief that he’s innocent and that her boyfriend’s testimony is responsible for the conviction.

Mike begins to have nagging doubts about his own testimony. At home, he becomes suspicious not hearing Meng’s usual snoring through the thin walls and begins to think Meng was murdered by the mysterious stranger (Peter Lorre) with the white scarf and bug-eyed expression he saw lurking around the third floor. Falling asleep in his chair, Mike dreams he’s arrested and convicted of cutting Meng’s throat. Mike sees himself strapped to the electric chair and Meng appearing in a gay mood to witness his execution. The dream is so convincing that Mike awakens and goes next door to discover Meng dead with his throat slit, just like Nick’s. The police search the neighborhood for the suspect, but Jane discovers the stranger by accident as he’s buying raw hamburger meat to feed a stray cat. It leads to a white-knuckler climax with the escaped lunatic from the asylum chasing the sweet lady across the deserted nighttime streets.

REVIEWED ON 2/13/2005 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”