Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Article #131 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing date: 7-25-2001
Posting date: 12-8-2001

A reporter offers evidence in a murder case that incriminates a suspect, and the man is condemned to death. When a tenant who shares the same apartment building with the reporter is killed, the reporter is the first to discover the body, and realizes that his own actions make him look like a suspect in the murder.

This film is considered by many to be the first film noir, and though it doesn’t contain all the elements associated with the genre, I can see why. The presence of Peter Lorre as a psychotic murderer (an excellent performance) is what places the movie at least marginally in the horror genre, and the dream sequence that the reporter undergoes when he fears that people will see him as the murderer is also quite fantastic; it’s probably the best part of the movie.

Unfortunately, I have real problems with the story as a whole; I think the coincidences that drive the story are very hard to swallow, (the reporter is seen engaging in the same exact behavior as the man he incriminates, the man who really committed the murders is the same in each case, etc.), and I don’t really care for the fact that the movie seems to be morally judging the reporter for having done nothing more than truthfully testifying in court; to place the blame for the man’s wrongful condemnation on his shoulders (as both the movie and his girlfriend do) is patently unfair. I also find it hard to believe that his newspaper would allow him to be a reporter on the story when he himself is one of the witnesses; I suspect that would be considered somewhat unethical, and that another reporter would have been sent. All in all, despite its good qualities, I find the movie to be ultimately unconvincing and silly, and though it may be the first noir, there were better to come.

Incidentally, the cast includes Charles Halton (as the man who shares the apartment building with the reporter) and Elisha Cook Jr. (as the innocent man sentenced by mistake).


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