Thursday, November 29, 2018

Stranger On the Third Floor 1940

            A sixty minute slap in the mug. Made by RKO with some great character actors, and 2 unknown leads, this squirt in the eye movie is considered by some to be the first film noir before the term existed. Possible since it is severe, dark, expressionistic and cheaply made on the backlot of RKO.  Known as an A and B studio making those great Astaire Rogers musicals along with those classic Val Lewton flickers featuring leopard men, cat people and zombies. The studio also had Radio City Music Hall as their crown theatre where most of their product played during the 30’s and 40’s.  John McGuire nicely forgotten today plays Michael a hungry for glory newspaper reporter who just happens to walk into a crime at his favorite neighborhood dive and later gives eye witness testimony that helps convict the hapless dude accused of the murder, played with pity by the great Elisha Cook Jr.
                     Michael’s attractive girlfriend is nicely played by Margaret Tallichet who has her doubts about Elisha’s guilt and is torn up when Michael’s testimony helps send Elisha to an appointment with the electric chair.
              Meanwhile Michael is also having doubts about his testimony and Elisha’s guilt and his inner thoughts yell at us as he passes time in his crummy room in his boarding house. He broods and sweats and has terrible rows with his cranky landlady played by Ethel Griffies and his nosey difficult neighbor acted with full speed ahead by the great character actor Charles Halton who we’ve seen in a million movies. Halton who goes by the perfect name of  Meng complains about the noise that Michael makes typing away late at night on his articles and there is a big row between them when Michael brings Jane to his room one late and rainy night.
                Hey they’re on their way to marriage but its 1940 and bringing gals to your room was not the proper thing to do according to his landlady and Meng. Meanwhile Peter Lorre is lurking around in the streets and on the third floor where Michael and Meng live. Later that night Michael and Jane decide to go for a walk to Washington Sq. to clear their minds and commiserate next to a giant photo blowup of the Washington Sq. Arch, which is so charming and outsider art.
             The best art though is coming up in a expressionistic nightmare that Michael has after he discovers the dead body of Meng and is worried that he will be blamed and tried for the crime. This montage is so wonderful and brilliant that I wanted to hang it on my wall or carry it in my pocket to take out on those long subway rides into the city. This sequence is sophisticated and lavish in it’s cheap budget way: lots of cutting diagonals of light, small figures in large spaces, unforgiving jurists who sleep through his trial just like they really did in Elisha’s trial, and huge newspapers blaring out the headlines to mention just a few of the bold images that would make Fritz Lang jealous and Dr. Caligari weep tears of envy, that’s how good it is.
                  The great Nathanael West  is uncredited for the screenplay, and the beautiful cinematography is by the important cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca who started in movies in the late 20’s and did many important Noir films along with the cinematography for “I Remember Mama” which got him his only Oscar nomination. Also noteworthy and of note is the great art direction by Van Nest Polglase who did the restrained realistic interiors and the startling nightmare. There’s not much suspense in guessing who the real murderer is, and the ending might be a little too cute for some. The director Boris Ingster did only 2 more movies and a bunch of TV before disappearing from view. Speaking of disappearing the actress Margaret Tallichet did a few more films before retiring forever from films after marrying William Wyler in 1938 and remained married to him for 43 years until his death in 1981.  


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