Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)


Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is a noirish B with some nightmarish drama that hinges on a courtroom injustice, and also makes that setting key in its horrifying look at persecution, anxiety and indifference. Reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) is finally moving up at his paper, thanks to being a key witness whose testimony sends poor unlucky Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) to death row. Mike’s fiancee Jane (Margaret Tallichet) is deeply disturbed at the circumstantial nature of the evidence, the easy assumption of guilt based on Joe’s previous minor crimes, and the whole case depending on Mike’s luck in finding Joe standing over a murder victim. She’s positively sickened after seeing a member of the jury fall asleep and the apathetic judge having to be nudged awake himself so he can caution the juror. Nobody seems to actually care about hearing facts or considering possible innocence, and that whole anxious scene is about to be repeated with Mike in Joe’s shoes.

After the guilty verdict comes and Joe is dragged away screaming (Cook does such a great job in his scenes), Mike’s conscience and guilt start eating at and unraveling him, kicking off a night that takes him back in time to recall his own history of incriminating statements, deep into an examination of his own murderous impulses and bad temper, and through a surreal, premonitory, expressionist nightmare that includes his turn being a wrongly-convicted innocent. The fever-dream is made real once Mike wakes up and becomes the suspect in the murder of his annoying neighbour Meng (Charles Halton), and the object of ridicule over his insistence that a scary man he saw (Peter Lorre) did both killings.

Many consider Stranger on the Third Floor to be the first film noir, and understandably so, with its story of a man at his life’s high point getting swatted down by guilt and bad luck, and his scary downward spiral depicted with a paranoid voice-over, extreme light-dark contrasts, deep shadows and disorienting angles. Director Boris Ingster, Director of photography Nicolas Musuraca and art director Van Nest Polglase did a fantastic job creating all these unforgettable visuals. Mike is isolated in uncomfortable, unreal spaces, and persecuted by suspicious, intrusive, judgmental, and vindictive people. Meng distracts from his own creepy behaviour by trying to trap Mike in inappropriate acts, the law Mike trusts just ignores or mocks his pleas, and the villain Lorre vanishes like a ghost. Even sweet Jane’s success at finally finding the killer, turns to desperation when he tries to kill her. True to this twist-of-fate story, things are only resolved by chance, in the form of a speeding truck, and even with that happy ending, its hard to forget the intense dread and close calls.

This post is part of The Classic Courtroom Movies Blogathon hosted by Theresa of CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, and Lesley of Second Sight Cinema. Click here to see more great posts.

Screen shot 2016-03-06 at 12.45.59 PM


18 thoughts on “Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)”

  1. Hey Kristina…I think THIS film is touted at being the very first film noir. ( Yeah…before “The Maltese Falcon.” ) It’s a strange one and that surreal courtroom scene is wild. Thanks for joining in and featuring this for our blogathon this weekend. We appreciate it.

  2. I’m one of those who considers it the first noir of the classic era. It’s not one of my favorites, but definitely worth a watch. And Elisha Cook makes practically anything a must-see.

    1. Cook was super, so was Lorre in the short time he got. Great-looking movie with so much dread and random bad luck. To me it added to the effect to have such a “perfect” young couple, like watching Clark Kent and Lois get caught in Detour or something. Thanks!

    1. The dream sequence gets the most attention but really, all of it is nice efficient storytelling and buildup on a low budget. Love these types of movies.

  3. I remember this as being a great movie. It’s been too long since I saw it. I’d forgotten the dream sequence. I’ll need to give this one another look.

  4. Enjoyed this film many moons ago, when very young and was captivated. It was one of those films that first introduced me to what I would later discover was noir. Hits all the right spots – plot, characterisation and stylistic without losing any substance. Many thanks Kristina! Have just started my own blog and you certainly inspire me. Look forward to reading more.

  5. I mentioned this movie and the fact that it is considered the first film noir in the opening of my “Film Noir Blogathon” post, but I’ve never actually seen it. (It’s release date is the basis of why I chose the dates for my blogathon. :-D) Now it is among a list of movies I’m adding to my “gotta see” list. (which at this point will keep me busy until 2017, even if I watch two or three a week…) Good review.

    1. Tell me about it, I’m resigned to the fact I will never get through my watch list, but it sure is fun to try! It is a gotta see, noir is an interesting thing to track back through this to horror, etc. Thanks!

    1. Lorre isn’t eve in it that much but got good billing and makes an impression. Good scenes where he’s talking to Tallichet, and she figures out he’s the killer while he gets increasingly paranoid. Thanks!


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