Friday, November 2, 2012

The first noir?

TCM is showing the movie which is often referred to as the first noir: Stranger on the Third Floor, tomorrow morning at 7:45 AM. Whether or not it's really the first noir is beside the point, although I'll comment on that a bit at the end of this post. The movie is extremely well worth watching in its own right.

John McGuire plays Mike, a journalist working in the big city, in love with his girl Jane (Margaret Tallichet). He's also a witness in a murder trial: apparently he saw the defendant Joe (Elisha Cook, Jr.) threaten the victim, and the victim wound up quite dead, having had his throat slit. John testifies, and his testimony gets Joe convicted and sent to the electric chair. So far, so good, right? Of course not! Jane isn't so sure of Joe's guilt, and that's the least of Mike's problems.

Mike's got a neighbor Meng (Charles Halton) who seems to have something against Mike, getting the landlord to have Jane sent home when she spends too long in Mike's apartment. (If you'll recall the old days of rooming houses, many of them were single-sex and especially the ones for women discoaraged having single guests of the opposite sex and closing the doors.) Mike rather stupidly threatens Meng, in much the same way that Joe threatened his murder victim. The next morning, Meng is found dead, and obviously, Mike is accused of being the murderer.

Mike, for his part, claims to have been asleep when the murder would have occurred (and boy did he have the nightmare to prove it; at least, we viewers get to see the nightmare). Not only that, but he claims to have seen a shadowy strnager in the building who, unsurprisingly, has disappeared. You'd think the police would be able to find blood in Mike's room after a murder as vicious as slitting somebody's throat, especially since he didn't have the facilities to clean his hands and blood the way, say, OJ Simpson did. But the police weren't so good 70 years ago. It's up to Jane to find out whether or not there really was a stranger there.

The Stranger on the Third Floor is a great little film. As you can probably guess from the list of actors I've mentioned above, this was decidedly a B movie. In fact, the one really recognizable name is Peter Lorre, playing the stranger, who doesn't show up until toward the end of the movie and doesn't speak much, although what he does say and do he does quite well. Supposedly he had a brief period left on his contract at RKO and the studio came up with this "small" role to finish out the contract. Lorre makes a lot out of it. Being a B movie, the writer and director were forced to come up with lighting and camera techniques to add to what is a fine story, even if one of mistaken identity that had probably been done before. It is that lighting (stuff that you could imagine Val Lewton doing a few years later at RKO), combined with the plot turning on Mike, that makes The Stranger on the Third Floor fit somewhat into the noir genre. It doesn't really have the femme fatale or later movies that are unambiguously noir, but many of the elements or noir are unmistakably there. So a proto-noir, definitely. Was it the first? Well, I don't think so; noir came about from the French, who in the late 1930s made movies like Le jour se lève (which I've briefly mentioned a couple of times, but never done a full-length post on). Still, I think The Stranger on the Third Floor is a reasonably important movie in American cinematic history, and a pretty darn good one, too.

1 comment:

livius1 said...

Stranger on the Third Floor is a visually arresting movie more than anything - the trial sequence is wonderfully realized.
The story itself is noirish but, as you say, not quite the finished product. I like it well enough though, mainly for the look and Peter Lorre's involvement.

Colin