A Noir is Born

 Front row centre

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, 1940, seems to be one of the earliest pure films noir. Peter Lorre plays a deranged killer, Elisha Cook is a fall guy. There is a slightly awkward plot, driven by coincidence and tearing loose from logic, structurally odd, peppered with flashbacks and fantasies and capable of swift turns into unexpected territory. The photography by Nicholas Musuraca (CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST) delivers all the expected noir tropes, and a lot more.

This is a year before THE MALTESE FALCON and far more of the expected genre elements are in place than in that film, and the style has a dreamlike expressionist hyperintensity — especially in the expressionist dream sequence.

The Patsy

The story isn’t up to much, perhaps, but it ticks so many boxes, boxes that don’t officially exist yet: it’s driven by irrationality and paranoia, like Cornell Woolrich’s pulp fever-dreams. The IMDb lists Nathaniel West as an uncredited script contributor, perhaps gathering Hollywood material for Day of the Locust.

Director Boris Ingster hardly directed anything else, being more active as a screenwriter and TV producer (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.). I’m inclined to assign the best qualities of this film to the great Nicholas “I think we all use too many lights” Musuraca. His dream sequence is like a Will Eisner comic strip: the shots are nearly all static and the actors strike poses, freezing in creepy tableaux vivants as soon as they have found the best dramatic effect:

The Prisoner

Only me.

I love these crazy cut-out images! Musuraca was a true shadowplayer. Few noir films have shots as exciting and stylised, it’s just a shame this one doesn’t create more compelling drama from its disjointed narrative. The two best actors in the film, noir icons Lorre and Cook, playing lunatic and patsy, have little screen time and never share a scene, so we have to make do with interacting with duller characters, and the plot moves in fits and starts, making no particular point, squandering its delirium. But at 64 minutes the thing is over before you know it, and its zigzag shadowshow hangs around your head like a haunted hat. It’s a twitchy little pulp that DREAMS of being a great noir thriller.

if the headline is big enough it MAKEs the news big enough

I read the news today oh boy

“Pope Killed by Inferior Wine!”

4 Responses to “A Noir is Born”

  1. In the world of classic B movies, less is always more. Think of how simply the great Val Lewton films were cobbled together — often using sets from other RKO productions (eg. the stairway from The Magnificent Ambersons becomes the girl’s school in The Seventh Victim) Edgar G. Ulmer had even less — conjuring an entire mansion out of an empty sound stage in Ruthless (his masterpeice,IMO.) Think too of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie — a real gem.

  2. It’s probably a part of why noir faded somewhat through the fifties — modesty was no longer a virtue. Fifties films tend to yell about their “importance”more — even the B movies.

    Late noir is no longer so simple — the baroque grotesequery of Touch of Evil and the stark bombast of Kiss Me Deadly are quite far from the early style. But noir covers a huge range.

    Met Arianne Ulmer, who was lovely. Still hear from her from time to time when there’s an Ulmer symposium.

  3. […] Cabanne’s CONSPIRACY. Brief but good location stuff, A Radio Picture (no RKO). Shot by Nick Musuraca who must’ve worked for that outfit his whole puff (later, CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST). […]

  4. […] Hard to believe it was made BEFORE Lang’s SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR… but it was. I guess STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR’s extended legal nightmare scene was an inspiration. I include these images without the narrative points which explain them, because […]

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