Noir City at SIFF – Stranger on the Third Floor
Bust out the fedoras and seamed stockings and prep your alibis. Noir City, SIFF Cinema’s annual festival showcasing the gems of film noir, kicks off its fifth series tonight. Presented in conjunction with the Film Noir Foundation, the fest will show fourteen classic films over the next seven nights, many of which are not available on DVD, or even VHS.
The opening night double feature includes Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), the film often cited as the first ever noir. In a taut 64 minutes, we’re told the story of reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire), who coincidentally came across a murder scene while entering a diner, and has turned his role as key witness into a byline-boasting career builder, as well. His twisted good fortune has meant a raise that will allow him to finally marry his sweetheart, Jane (Margaret Tallichet). We learn all of this very quickly in a charming opening sequence of banter between the couple at a lunch counter, as the film packs a punch of exposition right away, but softens it with the chemistry between these two actors.
At the trial, Mike describes coming across the defendant, Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.) standing over the body of Nick, the diner’s owner, and then running away. As a regular in the diner, Mike had also seen Briggs in there before, once having an altercation with Nick and making one of those ill-timed movie death threats. Yet, despite the damning circumstantial evidence, Briggs is adamant about his innocence, and Jane fears that Mike is about to be responsible for sending the wrong man to a death sentence. Indeed, Briggs hardly looks like the killing type. Cook, a great character actor of the era, has a baby face, and here offers his protests mostly in high-pitched gasps of words. Could he really have slit a man’s throat? Jane doesn’t think so.
From here, the film explores the question of Briggs’s guilt or innocence through two different lenses: Mike’s building paranoia as he tries to put himself in the place of a wrongfully accused man and ask what he would do, and Jane’s determined sleuthing around the neighborhood, as she can’t put the voice of doubt in her mind to rest. McGuire and Tallichet are ceaselessly appealing in their quests, and watching the male character shoulder the melodramatic burden while the female character gets her gumshoe on is a pleasure. By the time the legendary Peter Lorre, the titular character and top-billed actor, actually enters the picture, I was already hooked by these two actors I’d never seen before.
Stranger on the Third Floor may mostly be well-known because of its claim to fame as probably the first film to tie the quintessential elements of noir into one package, but it is well worth watching as more than just a notch on the timeline. The core of the plot is fairly typical for the genre, but the tactics the film uses along the way to its conclusion provide the viewer something off the beaten path. Essential viewing for noir fans in particular, but good entertainment for anyone.
Stranger on the Third Floor plays at 9: 30 PM, following 1947’s High Wall (showing in a new 35mm print, ooh ah!) at 7: 30.
Stay tuned to The MacGuffin for more coverage of the films you shouldn’t miss during Noir City!