Stranger on the Third Floor
Peter Lorre had two days left on his contract at RKO, so they put him to work in a small but crucial part in this movie, and gave him top billing, which must have pissed off the stars, John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet. But who ever heard of John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet? (Well, people probably knew their names back then, but neither of them lasted, like Lorre’s has.) He plays a homicidal maniac—jeez, why didn’t they ever cast him as a saintly kindergarten teacher? Oh, right, it’s that frog-eyed, homicidal maniac face—who committed a murder that another man (ever-hysterical Elisha Cook Jr.) is going to fry for.
A reporter whose circumstantial testimony was what convicted the innocent man has a girl friend who is upset at the verdict, and they both begin to wonder if the wrong man is going to the chair. Meanwhile, Lorre slashes the throat of one of the reporter’s neighbors, who he has had problems with, to the point that he once threatened to kill the man. Oops! Next thing you know the reporter is arrested for both murders, and it’s left to the intrepid girlfriend to find the fiend and bring him to justice.
Some film scholars choose this film as the very first true film noir of the classic days of Hollywood, and I wouldn’t argue. It has all the photographic earmarks with darkness, askew camera angles, and a recurring theme of stairways and blinds casting prison-bar shadows. But most of all it has the dream sequence. I laughed aloud in delight at the wacky sets of a courtroom and a prison as the innocent man is convicted and takes his last walk down death row. The art direction was by the ubiquitous Van Nest Polglase, but I’ve always assumed he was the head of the art department, as no man could have designed as many sets as he is listed for, and the IMDb confirms this. Someone must know who actually thought up those insane sets, but I don’t. Too bad, because I’d like to give him credit.