In this lesson we are going to examine Boris Ingster’s 1940 film, Stranger on the Third Floor. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.
Reporter Michael Ward is the key witness in a murder trial. His evidence – that he saw the accused Briggs standing over the body of a man in a diner – is instrumental in having Briggs found guilty.
Afterwards Ward’s fiancee Jane is worried whether Ward was correct in what he saw and Ward becomes haunted by this question. Next, Ward’s neighbour is killed the same way as the man in the diner, but Ward is arrested for trying to point this out to the police. As a result, Jane goes out to try to clear Ward by finding the sinister stranger that Ward saw on the stairwell.
In every definition, Stranger on the Third Floor was a B-picture with the exception of Peter Lorre in the cast. Peter Lorre owed RKO two days on his contract and was given this role with few scenes and few lines, but received top billing. Margaret Tallichet daughter, Peter Lorre would eat raw onions on set just before his scene where attacked Margaret to help get a more repulsive performance from her.
Upon its release in 1940, The New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, called the film pretentious and derivative of French and Russian films, and wrote, “John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet, as the reporter and his girl, are permitted to act half-way normal, it is true. But in every other respect, including Peter Lorre’s brief role as the whack, it is utterly wild. The notion seems to have been that the way to put a psychological melodrama across is to pile on the sound effects and trick up the photography.”
The staff at Variety also believed the film was derivative, and wrote, “The familiar artifice of placing the scribe in parallel plight, with the newspaperman arrested for two slayings and only clearing himself because of his sweetheart’s persistent search for the real slayer, is used…Boris Ingster’s direction is too studied and when original, lacks the flare to hold attention. It’s a film too arty for average audiences, and too humdrum for others.”
Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, calls the film “An RKO B-film from 1940, done up in high Hollywood expressionism. It’s absurdly overwrought (which was often the problem with the German variety), but interesting for it. The director, Boris Ingster, is better with shadows than with actors—venetian blinds carve up the characters with more fateful force than Paul Schrader’s similar gambit in American Gigolo, and there’s a dream sequence that has to be seen to be disbelieved.”