Among noir geeks there is an eternal debate about the exact beginnings of the genre. Some people finger Huston’s The Maltese Falcon as the culprit that started the ball rolling in 1941. Others say that it all started as late as 1944 when McMurray meet Stanwyck in Wilder’s Double Indemnity. A more likely candidate, however, is a little 63-minute RKO film from 1940 called Stranger On The Third Floor. It was directed by a man named Boris Ingster, and one reason the film hasn’t been as widely embraced as noir’s starting point by some critics and historians is because Ingster wasn’t a great director.
The Auteurist Theory of film—begun by the French and championed by many Americans—holds that movies are the product, above all, of the director. People like Orson Welles and Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock are some favorite examples of acknowledged auteurs. They are the men who put stamps of personality on their pictures. There’s something to this theory, of course. Welles, Hawks, and Hitchcock were great artists. So were Wilder and Huston. Noir, however, is a strong counterargument to the Auteurist theory. For every great noir directed by an acknowledged master, there is a great noir directed by someone who was more or less a gun for hire, a simple professional, a hack. As a genre, noir is a nice reminder that movies are, after all, a collaborative art form.
With Stranger On The Third Floor you can see the genre beginning to take shape. It tells a simple story of a reporter named Mike Ward (John McGuire) who stumbles upon a murder victim and identifies a nervous cabbie (played by Elisha Cook Jr) as the person he saw previously arguing with the dead man. On the strength of Mike’s testimony, the little cabbie is convicted. Mike, however, is plagued with doubt. Did he just send an innocent man to the electric chair? These doubts increase after the trial when he runs into a creepy psycho played by Peter Lorre. Is Lorre the murderer? Things take a turn for the worse when it starts to look like Lorre might have just committed another murder, a murder which will point, ironically enough, back to Mike.
This is the thinnest of plots, but an interesting aspect of the film is how little it’s concerned with the mechanisms of the story. It is far more concerned with emotions, with a building sense of unease, isolation, and dread. Mike has a long dark night of the soul. He thinks Lorre might have killed the annoying man who lives next to Mike on the third floor of an apartment building. Since Mike hated the man and had public fights with him, he knows that he will look like the most likely killer. He’s plagued by dreams.
These dreams are the centerpiece of the film and pinpoint the exact moment that German Expressionism and a buried American angst collided on our screens. The film was shot by Nicolas Musuraca (Out Of The Past, Roadblock), one of the great noir cinematographers. What he and Ingster do in this film owes a huge debt to the work of Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Mike’s dreams are huge set pieces of slanted shadow and askew camera angles, yet they are situated in very America settings. The film begins, and ends, with images typical of American films of the time: bright, busy city streets full of people happily going about their day. Yet, by the time Mike awakes from his tormented dreams to discover that his neighbor has indeed been killed and that he is the chief suspect in the murder, his waking life has become a nightmare.
What happens next is telling. With Mike in jail, the film shifts focus to Mike’s fiancé, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) as she tries to track down the creepy little psycho played by Lorre. She finds him, and Lorre terrorizes her until a deus ex machina intervenes to save her and resolve the plot. What is so telling about this section of the story is the way the film shifts gears from one character to another just to keep the mood intact—because after all, it’s the mood (and its affect on the audience) that’s important. The characters are thin because they are functioning not so much like characters but rather like elements in a composition, like notes in a score.
Because Stranger On The Third Floor is a melodramatic piece of work, much of the acting feels like something out of a silent film. When Mike presses his ear to his wall to listen to the next room, he doesn’t just press his ear to the wall and look worried, he splays himself against it like he’s trying to get out of Caligari’s cabinet. Elisha Cook Jr. doesn’t just decry his conviction, he explodes all over the screen, those big eyes of his filling up like balloons. And Peter Lorre—everyone’s favorite creep—plays his part as if his character is a foppish demon.
So it’s not subtle, but it doesn’t want to be subtle. It doesn’t want to be naturalistic. It wants to be a highly stylized nightmare, and so it is. As the years went by, noir wormed its way into subtler pictures, merged with aspects of naturalism and hardboiled crime fiction. But it started here.