review for The Stranger on the Third Floor on AllMovie

The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
by Craig Butler review

Often (though debatably) classified as the first true film noir, The Stranger on the Third Floor is an uneven but fascinating example of that fascinating genre. Boris Ingster, in his directing debut, makes quite an impression, and one wishes he had directed more movies subsequently. Very obviously a B-movie -- a great deal of the picture is comprised of street scenes, due to budgetary restrictions that limited the number of sets that could be used -- Stranger's cheapness doesn't prevent it from being inventive and, the ending aside, quite effective. Ingster and writer Frank Partos do an excellent job of creating a film which creates a heightened reality and which changes tone dramatically. Indeed, at the beginning Stranger has a lightheartedness which is rather off-putting; a man is on trial for his life, but he seems to be the only person (other than the girlfriend of the star witness) who realizes the seriousness of what is going on. That lighthearted tone shifts dramatically as the film progresses, becoming increasingly dark and horrific. Ingster doesn't achieve these shifts seamlessly, and there are some who will find the exaggerated effects he uses distracting, but on the whole, his work here is quite impressive. The nightmare sequence is especially well done, giving cinematographer Nick Musuraca a chance to really let loose. (Musuraca's work is quite good throughout, however.) Stranger also features a memorable psychotic turn from Peter Lorre and good supporting work from Elisha Cook Jr. Where the film falls seriously down is in the casting of its lead. Neither John McGuire nor Margaret Tallichet are better than adequate, when considerably more is demanded. The aforementioned weak ending is also a detriment, as is a general hastiness and some sloppiness in the storytelling. Still, if it falls short of being a classic, The Stranger on the Third Floor is well worth watching to see noir in its early infant stages.