Film Review: Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)

Release Date: August 16th, 1940
Directed by: Boris Ingster
Written by: Frank Partos, Nathanael West
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Waldron

RKO Radio Pictures, 64 Minutes

Review:

“I want a couple of hamburgers… and I’d like them raw.” – The Stranger

This very early film-noir is a really short movie but man, it makes a solid impact at just 64 minutes and it really didn’t need more than that.

Stranger On the Third Floor plays more like an episode of some anthology crime television series but could feel completely at home as an hour long episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilght Zone, as it really feels like horror, with as dark and scary as it is. It’s a very atmospheric film and it’s creepy subtlety is more effective than just having monsters and violence pop up on screen.

Peter Lorre is tremendous in this as “The Stranger”. His role here is really a call back to his amazing part in Fritz Lang’s 1931 German masterpiece M. While Lorre isn’t a child killer in this film, he is a cold blooded evil killer, nonetheless. Lorre was always perfect as evil, chilling, reptilian characters. While he could be soft, loving and sweet he could just as easily twist that quality about himself into something really friggin’ terrifying.

The film also has Elisha Cook Jr. in it, as a man accused of murder who is innocent. “The Stranger” is the real killer but how all this plays out is great. Cook and Lorre would work together again, a year later, on the bonafide film-noir classic, The Maltese Falcon. Both men would go on to be big stars in the noir style and both would also go on into the 1960s to star alongside Vincent Price for some of his Edgar Allan Poe movies.

There are few films that completely hide their limitations with a great use of atmosphere. Stranger On the Third Floor is a good, early example of this. Sure, there were lots of horror movies that couldn’t afford great monsters but as was seen, back then, that didn’t stop most movies from throwing bad looking monsters on screen. Stranger On the Third Floor, while not exactly horror, shows how to build dread, terror and suspense with subtle reveals and great cinematography and lighting. However, it might not have worked as effectively if this film was drawn out to ninety minutes.

In this day and age, this film isn’t as known as it probably should be. That’s okay though, because it was a nice surprise, as I’m working my way through a lot of film-noir and the filmography of one of my favorite actors, Peter Lorre.

And really, between this and 1931’s M, was Peter Lorre cinema’s first “slasher”?

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