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cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuirre, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr, and Charles Waldron
director: Boris Ingster
64 minutes (PG) 1940
Odeon DVD Region 2
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Stranger On The 3rd Floor
Let us all drink a hearty toast to Odeon Entertainment, without whom many fascinating Hollywood B-pictures such as Richard Wallace's
The Fallen Sparrow (1943), Alfred L. Werker's
Sealed Cargo (1951), and John Ford's
The Lost Patrol (1934) would now be lost to the mists of time and
out-dated formats. Cheers! This month, the good people at Odeon offer us Boris Ingster's Stranger On The 3rd Floor, a visually striking
psychological melodrama that never quite manages to rise above its B-movie origins despite a beautifully smart script co-written by the renowned
satirist and Hollywood insider Nathanael West (of Day Of The Locust fame).
The film begins with a young woman (Margaret Tallichet) sitting by herself at a lunch counter. Clearly distracted by something, she casually
turns away offers of male companionship until a big galoot with good hair named Mike (John McGuirre) settles down next to her. They not only
know each other but are involved... in fact, Mike wants to marry Jane because he just got a big raise and can finally afford that little apartment
the pair had their eyes on. What earned him his promotion? Well... it turns out that Mike was the first man on the scene when somebody stabbed
the owner of an all-night coffee shop and, as a star witness in the case and a budding reporter, Mike got the chance to tell his side of the story
on the front page of his paper. A chance he promptly made the most of, earning himself a raise, a promotion and the respect of his fellow newshounds
all in the space of two and a half columns.
From there, the action migrates to a courthouse where a distracted judge and distracted jurors railroad a wide-eyed man through the stockyard of
justice and straight into the big house. Mike's testimony might well have put him away but there was something so believable in those protestations
of innocence. Who knows� maybe he didn't do it. Maybe Mike earned his promotion by sending an innocent man to the gas chamber. Jane definitely
thinks so... and so does Mike as he makes his way home through the mean streets of L.A.
Once arrived at his apartment block, Mike's belly full of coffee and cheap liquor asserts itself in the form of terrible nightmares of guilt.
Ingster conveys Mike's dark night of the soul through an armada of familiar special effects; Venetian blinds look like bars, shadows loom out at
Mike as he stands in a distorted courtroom, the statue of justice is blind but she also carries a scythe. This sort of psychotropic imagery was
hackneyed and over-used even in 1940 but there is no denying its efficiency particularly when Frank Partos and Nathanael West's script teases so
much Freudian currency from Mike's self-doubt. Mike's guilt exists on a number of different levels:
On one level, Mike feels guilty because his testimony helped to convict a man for murder in a state with the death penalty. Mike only told what
he saw but his words may well have sent a man to the gas chamber. Mike feels guilt not just because the man will be executed or because the man
may be innocent of all charges, but because his role in the conviction allowed him to launch his career as a journalist. Everything Mike is and
everything he wants to be is now tainted by the possibility that he helped to send an innocent man to his death.
On another level, Mike feels guilty because if chance can conspire to send an innocent man to his death, why was it the man in the dock who was
chosen rather than Mike? Mike's suspicion that he may well be more deserving of injustice than the man he sent to jail is fuelled by the fact that
Mike has repeatedly fantasised about murdering his next-door neighbour, a censorious busybody of a man who wagged his finger at Mike for drinking
coffee late at night, working at home, and trying to seduce Jane without making an 'honest woman of her'. Mike feels guilty about his murderous
fantasies because, as a single man living in the 1930s, Mike knows that the censorious neighbour is absolutely right: he shouldn't drink coffee
before bed, he shouldn't be working late at night, and he should marry Jane if he wants to get the chance to fuck her.
Drunk, wired and with his head already filled with feelings of guilt over the conviction of a potentially innocent man, Mike begins to fantasise
not about murdering his neighbour but about being railroaded to the gas chamber in the same way as the man in court. What if it turned out that
someone had killed his neighbour? Wouldn't they realise that Mike hated him? Wouldn't they realise that he fantasised about strangling the old
buzzard? If one innocent man could be sent to the gas chamber then why couldn't the same happen to Mike? Why shouldn't the same thing happen to
Mike? He deserves it... he wanted the old man dead.
Mike's guilt is so intense that it seems to take on a physical form as Mike stumbles across a strange man (Peter Lorre) leaving the neighbour's
apartment. Was the man there? Is the neighbour actually dead? Did Mike murder the old man while drunk? Mike's guilt and self-doubt are so intense
that, without actually checking to see whether the old man is dead, Mike is already dreaming about the possibility of being rightly executed for
being a murderer.
When it turns out that the neighbour is indeed dead, Mike is taken into custody as a material witness and the action shifts to Jane, whose faith
in Mike never weakens, as she spends the day asking questions in the neighbourhood in an attempt to track down the mysterious stranger with the
hooded eyes and the long, flowing scarf. This third act casts Jane both as the eminently practical 'little woman' who saves the flawed male hero
from self-destruction and as a sort of psychoanalytical figure wafting through Mike's memories in an attempt to distinguish between what is real
and what is merely a projection of Mike's fevered and paranoid dreams. After much searching, she encounters the mysterious stranger and discovers
him to be an escaped lunatic.
Much like Wallace's The Fallen Sparrow, Stranger On The 3rd Floor is a film that never quite manages to escape the limitations of
its B-picture origins. Indeed, both films begin by entertaining the notion that their protagonists are insane, but B-movies were not intended to
ask philosophical questions, and so both scripts wind up collapsing the psychological uncertainty of the first two acts into an unsatisfying
dénouement, which ties up all loose ends and allows the guy to get the girl and the baddie to be punished. In The Fallen Sparrow,
this collapsing of the psychological wave function is particularly jarring as the first two-thirds of the film pile on the weirdness only for the
film to end by suggesting that all the weirdness was not only real but easily defeated by a stiff punch to the jaw.
Stranger On The 3rd Floor fares a lot better than The Fallen Sparrow by having the film end rather than reach a climax. Indeed, Lorre
is neither defeated nor brought to justice; he simply gets run over and then lives long enough to make a full confession in front of witnesses.
As unsatisfying as this ending might prove on a broadly narrative level, it does suggest an awareness that the meat of the film lies not in the
question of who killed the coffee shop owner but rather in Mike's intense sense of guilt about everything from testifying in a murder trial to
wanting to have sex with his girlfriend. By refusing to explain why Lorre's character killed or where he came from, the film allows for the
possibility that Lorre's character really was nothing more than a phantasm... a phantasm whose death frees Mike from guilt and allows both Jane
and Mike to get on with their lives.
Clocking in at a little over an hour, Stranger On The 3rd Floor is hardly a long film but it is an excellent one whose lack of extras is
entirely excusable given the almost absurdly low cost of the DVD. This is a must for anyone who loves film noir and anyone who likes proper