Stranger on the Third floor is a highly influential film, cited by many as the first true noir film, codifying many of the elements of the genre. Expressionistic lighting, low camera angles, flashbacks, a dream sequence, a wrong man desperate to clear his name. The movie looks great, and from the visually distorted world of German Expressionism. Stranger on the Third Floor has a lot of things going for it, and deserves to be seen and appreciated as the important film that it is. It also, sorry to say, was not really for me.
The film is fairly brief, just over an hour long, but the entire first half hour had me twiddling my thumbs and wondering what all of it's fans were seeing in it. Peter Lorre shows up and provides the film a dose of his special Peter Lorre creepiness, but for the most of the first 37 minutes we're following a couple cookie-cutter characters in not-entirely-realistic dialogue and actions. John McGuire plays reporter Mike Ward, who happens one night to become the only witness to a murder, and suddenly finds professional success with this scoop. His testimony puts a man(played by Elisha Cook Jr.) in prison, and Mike is happy enough to have done his civic duty and reap the rewards of it. His girlfriend, Jane(Margaret Tallichet) is not so cavalier about his part in sending a man to the electric chair, especially since what he witnessed is not entirely damning.
That's not bad, or free from drama, as story setups go. But I couldn't really get onto the film's wavelength. I just wasn't amused by Mike and Jane's chemistry, which I found lacking. The movie also didn't seem to fully engage in it's anti-death penalty argument. All of that changed, however, at about 37 minutes in, when Mike finds himself in his apartment worrying that his next door neighbor might have just been killed, and worrying about how he might be held responsible if he calls the police. There are a couple of flashbacks as his voiceover memories drift to times when he's explicitly described how he wanted to kill the neighbor, and they are hilariously on the nose. Like Family Guy cutaway gags only relevant to the plot. But then the drugs appear to kick in, as Mike experiences a fever dream nightmare that seems to be the entire point of the film.
The long and slanted shadows of film noir grow and become nightmarish reaching tendrils in this dream, which has him imagining his own arrest and sentencing for his neighbors death in something that would look right at home in a Terry Gilliam film. Particularly the courtroom daydreams of Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This extended sequence sends Mike on the run, but his much more sensible girlfriend persuades him to take what he knows to the police, when it appears the murder of his neighbor might be related to the murder he helped send a man to prison for. But his instincts prove to be correct, and he's quickly arrested for the murder himself, leading Jane to search for the killer(who we already have reason to believe is Peter Lorre).
From the dream sequence on Stranger on the Third Floor finds an energy and tension that had been entirely missing up to that point. Maybe it's just that I couldn't dig John McGuire as the lead, or maybe I just really enjoyed Peter Lorre's performance, crazy hillbilly teeth and all. Most likely a little from column A, a little from Column B. Lorre's performance as the quietly, unassumingly insane man is the second highlight of this film. He speaks in a small voice, and shows childlike compassion until he suddenly snaps into a blind rage, and he performs both poles excellently.
Stranger on the Third Floor ends with a ridiculous gag that had me rolling my eyes while also thinking it was a pretty fun choice. It's nicely anti-death penalty, but that subject was handled much more impactfully seven years later in Time Without Pity. In the end the film is a flimsy framework holding up some amazing objects. The elements of this film would be diluted, yes, but also employed to more conventionally pleasing uses in the decades to come.