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Stranger on the 3rd Floor (DVD Review)

25 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet.

What the box art here says is true, which means that someone on the Warner staff was savvy in getting the quote. The landmark Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to an American Style (I still have my 1979 hardback of what, if it had pictures, would be a coffee table book) does indeed call this resourceful “B” from RKO “the first true film noir.” Think about it.

As has been said many times, film noir is an umbrella term that evolved well into the long first wave of the genre’s cycle; no one ever said at the time, “let’s make a zippy little film noir to put at the bottom half of a double bill with Dance, Girl, Dance” or whichever RKO 'A' from the period would have been subordinating it on the marquee. Recognition would come later — and actually much later, though my old NYU film prof William K. Everson was very fond of the film and showed it to students at his apartment. The first time I saw Stranger was under those circumstances one Fourth of July — directly after coming out of a theatrical double fill of Rossellini’s Open City and Fellini’s La Strada. The Everson part of the day ended with Tod Browning’s Freaks — but only after two additional movies that he showed in between. What a contrast. These were the days when the Fourth normally meant my father’s Bloody Mary’s and M-80’s (one sometimes influencing employment of the other).

Peter Lorre is the name-brand star here, but his part is small, even if he does play the title stranger. The thrust of the story involves a young newspaper reporter (forgotten John McGuire) who’d like to marry his girlfriend (soon-to-retire Margaret Tallichet, the real-life wife of director William Wyler and mother of Catherine Wyler, a significant figure in the film and arts community for almost as long as I can remember). Newfound fame has made McGuire’s goal an economic possibility — but at a price. As one who eye-witnessed the aftermath of a murder, he’s a star witness at the defendant’s trial who is then given the added opportunity to write about the situation. The other edge of the sword is the responsibility that goes with it. He alone can send the accused (Elisha Cook Jr.) to the electric chair.

Woe be it for poor Cook, who’s also featured in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, another early noir just out on Blu-ray. Every time I saw Cook on screen throughout his career, I always expected his opening line to be, “I didn’t do it,” and he’s credible here lamenting to the jury that he merely stopped by the victim’s place of business after the crime took place. His zeal — and perhaps the fact that the judge seems to be sleeping half the time – apparently has an effect on his accuser because McGuire goes back to his apartment (all modest newshound clutter) and enters into a wild slumber whose dream-vs. -reality dimension combines with a German expressionist look to give the movie its noir pedigree. Stranger was an early credit for the great Nicholas Musuraca, who later photographed several Val Lewton films and one of the noir standard bearers: Out of the Past. And its composer was Past’s Roy Webb.

It’s a very bizarre sequence — look how director Boris Ingster stages the body language of the jurors — and is basically what puts over the movie (up to a point). Unfortunately, matters get super rushed at the end (it ‘s been said that the production only had the use of Lorre for a brief period), and somehow the script finds the way to give all that has preceded a happy ending. It’s a most unlikely resolution … but then, no one ever knows how life is going to work out. Director Boris Ingster only made a couple more features after this promising beginning, while Musuraca concluded his career by shooting episodes of "McHale’s Navy" and "F Troop."

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