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.