Film Review: Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)

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

RKO Radio Pictures, 62 Minutes, 67 Minutes (longer cut)

Review:

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

Stranger On the Third Floor is a film-noir released a year before the experts say that the genre/style began. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered the first, even though it isn’t. But like that film, this one also features the remarkable Peter Lorre.

Maybe Stranger On the Third Floor isn’t considered “the first” noir because it came and went without making much of a bang. It was a low budget, short, crime drama that didn’t boast any big stars. Lorre certainly wasn’t the legend he would become and even though it did have Elisha Cook Jr., who also appeared a year later in The Maltese Falcon, he was never more than a character actor that popped up in mostly limited roles.

Stranger On the Third Floor has come to garner some respect and admiration over the years, however. Once film-noir was sort of defined and the date of its genesis was given to 1941, many film aficionados wanted to go back and look for the films that influenced the style. Sort of proto-noir pictures, if you want to call them that. Funny that Lorre was at the forefront of two of these proto-noirs: this film and 1931’s German masterpiece M. I guess his film with Hitchcock, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also shares some similarities to the style.

There are two really strong things about this picture.

The first is Peter Lorre’s performance. Sure, it’s similar to his other early roles and almost the same as his character from M, well not the child killer part, but the killer part, along with the mannerisms, the predatory movements and his icy glare. Lorre isn’t an actor that needs to say much of anything, he conveys things through his eyes and his body language that is as expressive as the greatest silent film era stars. That moment where Lorre opens the apartment door and slithers out like a reptile is chilling to the bone, even 78 years later.

The second is the cinematography. The lighting and the camera work are both exceptional. The film uses a lot of shadow in the same vein as the look of darker German Expressionist films. Although, the rest of the visuals aren’t all that surreal. But the high contrast chiaroscuro look gives the picture a haunting quality and it seems to most come alive in the scenes surrounding Lorre’s character, as the rest of the film looks pretty standard where he isn’t present. Well, except for that execution dream sequence that is a combination of surrealism, Expressionism and minimalist set design: all used to great effect.

The finale of the film plays more like a horror picture in how Lorre carries himself, how the film builds tension and dread, as well as those final moments before the killer meets his demise and that last line he delivers. In a way, the film shows a sort of link between Expressionism, horror and noir.

Stranger On the Third Floor is a unique motion picture that was more trendsetting than its lack of initial success would have you believe. Even if it didn’t inspire most noir directors of the era, it featured a lot of people, behind the scenes, that would go on to create the worlds of more notable film-noirs.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir-esque movies with Peter Lorre: MThe Maltese FalconThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThree StrangersBlack Angel and Quicksand.

Film Review: M (1931)

Also known as: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, lit. M – A city looks for a murderer (Germany)
Release Date: May 11th, 1931 (Germany)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, Karl Vash
Based on: a newspaper article by Egon Jacobson
Music by: Edvard Grieg
Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens

Nero-Film A.G., Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH, Paramount Pictures, 111 Minutes

Review:

“Just you wait, it won’t be long, The man in black will soon be here, With his cleaver’s blade so true, He’ll make mincemeat out of you!” – nursery rhyme in the film (translated from German)

I had heard great things about Fritz Lang’s M for years. In fact, the director even stated that this was his best film. I thought Metropolis would be incredibly hard to top but Lang is right, M is his magnum opus.

As a person that has seen thousands of movies, it is very rare that I see something that is so chilling that it has a pretty profound effect on my senses. M is one of those very rare experiences.

I understood what M was, going into it, but it went into unforeseen territory and really peeks into urban Germany society, just a few years before the Nazis rose to power. Some of the things in this film unknowingly foreshadowed a looming darkness that was bigger than this picture. It is something that is hard to explain but the last ten minutes or so, show a German society on the brink of extreme anxiety, unrest and anarchy. While I don’t think that was Lang’s intention, as it would be hard to predict what would happen after 1931, he was a man in that country, affected by the societal issues and political narratives around him.

M is a German movie that came out a whole decade before film-noir became a cinematic style in the United States. However, M is very much noir in style and in its narrative.

Noir borrowed its lighting techniques and general cinematography style from German Expressionist films, an artistic movement that Fritz Lang was a key part of. Lang would also be a prominent director in the noir style after leaving Germany for Hollywood, in an effort to escape the Nazis. M is a perfect bridge between the two cinematic styles and is comparable to the missing link in human evolution.

The plot of the film is about a serial killer of children and the manhunt to catch him. Not only are the police trying to find the killer but the criminal underworld and the citizens of Berlin are looking for him too.

Peter Lorre plays the killer. I have been a massive Lorre fan since first seeing him alongside Vincent Price in several of those 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman. Lorre is a great actor, has a great range and has always delivered. However, never have I seen Lorre put in a better performance than what I saw here, in M. While this is a German film and has German dialogue, Lorre’s performance is not lost in translation or effected by the reading of subtitles. As horrible and as evil as his character is, he is still able to generate some form of empathy. His display of despair and panic is intense and transcends the picture. When you get to the powerful ending of the film, he shines like a supernova.

Fritz Lang was a true auteur with a skill set that was mostly unmatched in 1931. This was his first picture with sound and he made the transition as perfect as humanly possible. This is a film that was as good as Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers in his prime, a few decades later. In fact, Lang was sort of the prototype to styles that would become synonymous with Hitchcock and film-noir in general. It is damn near impossible to question the director’s greatness after seeing M.

And while many might not consider it specifically film-noir, it is a grandfather to what was to come in motion pictures. It was a film ahead of its time and it is a lot darker than what American audiences were used to. Of course, World War II would change all of that.

M is a true time capsule that displays Germany’s societal paranoia just before Hitler was elected to power.

Film Review: Tales of Terror (1962)

Release Date: July 4th, 1962
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Richard Matheson
Based on: MorellaThe Black CatThe Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Les Baxter
Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Debra Paget, Joyce Jameson

American International Pictures, 89 Minutes 

Review:

“Haven’t I convinced you of my sincerity yet? I’m genuinely dedicated to your destruction.” – Montresor Herringbone

Director Roger Corman and actor Vincent Price collaborated on several motion pictures for American International in the 1960s. Most of their movies were adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary work. They also dabbled in the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Nathaniel Hawthorne but it was the poems and stories of Poe that drove most of their collaborations.

This film, is a rare one, as it is an anthology piece that covers three Poe inspired tales. Traditionally, Corman picked a Poe title and turned it into one solid feature. Tales of Terror was a bit more experimental and was able to showcase famous Poe stories that wouldn’t have worked as a 90 minute feature, The Cask of Amontillado for instance, which was mixed into this film’s second story, The Black Cat.

Vincent Price is the only actor to star in all three stories. However, Peter Lorre really steals the show as Montresor Herringbone. He is only in The Black Cat, the middle and longest of the three stories, but it is one of the greatest comedic performances in Lorre’s career. Then again, every time Lorre played the comic relief opposite of Price, the results were always fantastic.

Price also works with Basil Rathbone, another horror legend. We also get to see Debra Paget and Joyce Jameson, two women who would work with Price and Corman again.

Tales of Terror is a solid outing by Corman and Price and it has the same tone and vibe as their other Poe adaptations. The anthology format makes it the most unique and different of these pictures. Plus, it has two really good stories, out of the three. The first one, my least favorite, is still entertaining though, and it is also the shortest.

This is definitely a picture worth checking out if you like Price, Corman or Poe. It is one of the best in their series of these pictures.

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Also known as: The Gent From Frisco, The Knight of Malta (both were working titles)
Release Date: October 3rd, 1941 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston
Based on: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” – Sam Spade

I remember seeing the poster for The Maltese Falcon in a Hardee’s fast food restaurant near my house when I was a young kid. It was on a wall that was also decorated with posters from The African QueenCasablanca, Key Largo, The Big Sleep and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Whoever the franchise owner was, they must have been a big Bogart fan. Something about that Maltese Falcon poster just grabbed me though. I wouldn’t see the film until years later but I always remember eating breakfast in a dining room surrounded by Bogart’s manly mug.

As I got older, I too became a big fan of Humphrey Bogart. In fact, he is my favorite big wig actor alongside Orson Welles. The Maltese Falcon was also a film that drew me in and lived up to the hype of this poster that had a profound effect on me, as a kid just discovering his love of motion pictures.

The film features another actor I am a huge fan of, Peter Lorre. Seeing Bogart and Lorre together was a treat. While I was a fan of Lorre due to his later horror pictures, where he was often times playing opposite of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff or Basil Rathbone, seeing his work when he was younger, is still a lot of fun and he holds his own among the heavyweights.

The acting in this is some of the best put to celluloid but that is just about every Bogart picture. The guy just had an uncanny and almost magical way in which he commanded the audience’s attention and transcended the screen. With Lorre, their scenes in particular are some of the best in Bogart’s legendary career. Mary Astor, Gladys George and Sydney Greenstreet also add a certain level of quality to the picture. Elisha Cook Jr. also showed up with his best foot forward.

Most film-noir experts credit this picture for giving birth to this genre that no one realized was a genre for a few decades. It is distinctly noir in its twists and turns and its femme fatale. It uses a high contrast visual style, similar to what was seen in German Expressionist pictures of the 1920s. But there is just something pristine about this movie’s visual presentation. It has a silvery and majestic allure.

At the time of The Maltese Falcon‘s release, quality mystery films were most associated with British directors like Alfred Hitchcok and Carol Reed. This proved that Hollywood could hang with the genre and as was stated in the last paragraph, this was a film that birthed a storytelling and stylistic movement in American motion pictures.

Coming out the same year as Citizen Kane, these two films redefined how filmmaking techniques could evolve. Pictures would become more artistic and less straightforward. John Huston, like Orson Welles, gave the world something unique and new.

The Maltese Falcon is a near perfect picture. It falls short of Citizen Kane when looking at the best pictures of 1941 but in any other year, this could easily be the best film. It boasts technical prowess, dynamite acting and as cool as Bogart was, he was never as cool as he was here, as Sam Spade.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part IV – The Invisible Man Series (1933-1944)

The next branch of the Universal Monsters tree that I have rewatched is the Invisible Man series of films.

This character and the other invisible characters in this series, were like the Mummy in that they never really got to crossover with the other monsters of their era. I would’ve loved to have seen how Claude Rains’ Dr. Jack Griffin a.k.a. the original Invisible Man would have fared against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man.

Like other characters in the Universal Monsters mythos, this one was milked to death. It also spawned a total of five films.

The Invisible Man (1933):

Release Date: November 13th, 1933
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: R.C. Sherriff
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

the-invisible-manReview:

Directed by James Whale, who gave us Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, this film is another classic gem in the catalog of his stellar work. Whale, once again, gave us some amazing cinematography even though this was an insanely difficult film to shoot for its time. The tone, the humor, the dread, all of it worked to a tee and came together like a perfectly woven tapestry.

Claude Rains is one of those actors that I cannot praise enough. He was a genius and between this film and his Phantom of the Opera adaptation, he proved that he was not just a master of horror but a master thespian able to perform at a level far exceeding many of the well-known dramatic actors of his era. There are few things in life that I prefer watching to Rains playing Dr. Jack Griffin in this film. His voice work, his body work, all of it was perfection.

This is the best film in the series and a solid, if not still the best, interpretation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The Invisible Man. This is a great example of James Whale’s supremacy as a director, especially in the horror genre, as well as one of the very best films put out by Universal – not just in their classic monster series and not just in that time period but of all-time.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940):

Release Date: January 12th, 1940
Directed by: Joe May
Written by: Joe May, Kurt Siodmak, Lester Cole
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Cast: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, Alan Napier

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes 

the_invisible_man_returnsReview:

The title is somewhat misleading, as this is a different character entirely. Although Dr. Jack Griffin’s brother Frank is a new character in this film and weirdly, Jack is referred to as “John” in this movie.

The film stars Vincent Price, a legendary horror icon in his first ever horror role. Price would gain more fame and legendary status several years later after starring in House of Wax. Regardless of that, Price played a likable and not so horrific character as this film’s incarnation of the Invisible Man. His character, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe is sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Knowing that he is innocent, the brother of the original Invisible Man injects himself with the invisible serum so that he can escape and clear his name.

One thing leads to another and we get the happy ending.

Alan Napier who played Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series has a big role in this film. Vincent Price would later go on to star as the villain Egghead in that same series.

This was a solid sequel and I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t a rehash of the original film, it was a pretty original idea and it was executed greatly.

The Invisible Woman (1940):

Release Date: December 27th, 1940
Directed by: A. Edward Sutherland
Written by: Kurt Siodmak, Joe May
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka

Universal Pictures, 72 Minutes 

inviswomanReview:

With Universal pumping out an insane amount of sequels to their horror franchises, they wasted no time in releasing The Invisible Woman the same year they released The Invisible Man Returns. Sequel-mania was running rampant at Universal!

This was the first film in the series to really take a plunge. There was nothing really “horror” about it and in fact, it was a comedy.

The plot sees a recently fired department store model get revenge on her boss after she is made invisible by a loony scientist. It was basically like the plot from 9-to-5 starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. Except it was about one woman and she was invisible.

This is a pretty forgettable film and had it not been wedged into this series – ending up in box sets like the one I own, it would’ve been lost in the sands of time.

The Invisible Agent(1942):

Release Date: July 31st, 1942
Directed by: Edwin L. Marin
Written by: Curtis Siodmak
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Ilona Massey, Jon Hall, Peter Lorre

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes 

invisibleagentReview:

This film takes The Invisible Man formula and gives us something pretty awesome: an invisible agent fighting the Nazis and a Japanese associate during World War II. Additionally, Peter Lorre is in this as the Japanese villain, which is intriguing, bizarre and just totally awesome! Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the villainous Nazi, making his second appearance in this series, as he also played the villain in The Invisible Man Returns.

This is my favorite sequel in the series, as the plot is awesome and it was well-executed.

Coming out at the height of World War II, this must have been an exciting film to watch. The special effects are once again top notch and the acting was good from all parties involved.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944):

Release Date: June 9th, 1944
Directed by: Ford Beebe
Written by: Bertram Millhauser
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Jon Hall, John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 78 Minutes 

invisiblemansrevengeReview:

The final film in the series gives us John Carradine as a scientist who is another new character with the power of invisibility.

New character wants to harness the power, new character gets the power, new character seeks revenge against those who wronged him. Sound familiar?

Well, at this point the traditional formula of this series has run its course and unfortunately, we didn’t get something as original and new as the previous film in the series.

This film isn’t a complete waste and it is okay but you’ll watch it swearing that you’ve seen it already. Plus, I really love John Carradine.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Wolf Man series.