Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

“Has there ever been any insanity in your family?”

In the film Stranger on the Third Floor from director Boris Ingster, newspaper reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) gets his big break when he stumbles upon a murder. Ward becomes the key witness at the murder trial of Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr) who is accused of slashing the throat of a popular cafe owner. Briggs maintains his innocence and claims that he found the victim with his throat cut, but Ward’s testimony convicts Briggs and he is sentenced to the chair.

The spotlight’s on Ward, and he gets a $12 a month raise–just enough for him to consider marriage to his long-time girlfriend, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) but she can’t shake the feeling that the raise, and their marriage will always be tainted by the murder. She considers the possibility that Briggs may be telling the truth. Unfortunately, Ward isn’t too interested in her doubts about the trial. Briggs is a ne’er-do-well who made threats to Nick, plus Ward’s role as the star witness resulted in an improvement in his newspaper career.

Ward soon finds out the hard way that threats and circumstantial evidence can convict an innocent man. Stranger on the Third Floor includes one of the best dream sequences ever filmed–thanks to strong character acting and excellent use of black and white. The film also includes another classic scene that takes place in Ward’s rented room in a boarding house when Ward’s amorous plans are thwarted by with a nosy landlady and a prying, sanctimonious neighbour. The reptilian Peter Lorre stars as ‘the stranger’ and he’s delightfully creepy and bizarre. All the characters–even the relatively minor ones–are very sharply developed. Stranger on the Third Floor–an early film noir– is just over 64 minutes long, but it’s a tightly developed, perfect little package and well worth watching if you can find a copy of it anywhere.

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