STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR
Here's another article I've written.� I hope you enjoy my review of this� Peter Lorre film gem below. � Please click the following links to read a couple of other articles entombed herein:�
(I'm unusually happy with this piece, written for Midnight Marquee Press' Actors Series: Peter Lorre book. Reviewer Ken Hanke, writing for Video Watchdog magazine, called the following essay "an outstanding bit of criticism and writing." (The check's in the mail, Ken!) MidMar's Peter Lorre volume also includes insightful work by other genre writers including Bryan Senn, Steven Kronenberg, Anthony Ambroglio and Cindy Ruth Collins. It's a must for Lorre devotees.--M.C. )
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940)
Crazed Dr. Gogol cackling in his weird neck harness. Intense Joel Cairo training a pistol on Sam Spade. Disillusioned Janos Szaby studying his horribly scarred features in a mirror.
These are a few of the famous faces of Peter Lorre. In my recollection, however, one image stands out above all others: The nameless stranger with the curious grin, winding his long, white scarf around his neck.
For me, Stranger On The Third Floor remains the quintessential Peter Lorre movie. Part of the reason for this is purely personal. I first saw the film on late-night TV when I was maybe 10 years old, in those halcyon days before home video. It petrified me. For some time afterward, I became unnerved any time I met a man wearing a scarf.
Many years passed before I saw the movie again, and in the interim I forgot the name of the film I had seen. For years, I believed the movie I had watched that midnight long ago was Fritz Lang's M. Then at last I saw M and realized I was mistaken. Finally, about 10 years ago, I caught Stranger On The Third Floor on American Movie Classics. When Lorre appeared, sporting that white scarf, chills immediately shot up and down my spine.
Unlike many movies I loved as a child, Stranger held its own against my fond memories. I discovered (or rediscovered) an even better film than I recalled. I have seen Stranger probably a dozen times since, and each time I unearth in it a new delight. However, my principal joy remains the same: Lorre's exquisite performance.
Despite extremely limited screen time, Lorre dominates the film. He packs every line, every gesture with meaning. This is boiled down, highly concentrated Peter Lorre. Never again would the actor accomplish so much with so few lines, not even in his memorable Casablanca cameo.
The movie unspools for 20 minutes before Lorre makes his first appearance. In the meantime, testimony by reporter Michard Ward (John McGuire) helps convict accused murderer Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), despite the defendant's desperate pleas of innocence. Ward's girlfriend Jane (Margaret Tallichet) believes Briggs. The young reporter suffers the first of two harrowing nightmare sequences.
Lost in his own thoughts, Ward barely notices The Stranger when they first meet. But immediately the audiences eyes seize on the Lorre. He is slumped on the steps to Ward's apartment building, with his hat cocked sideways on his head, nervously fidgeting with a long white scarf. The Stranger looks up at Ward with his round, tormented eyes, then stands, smirks and tips his hat. Lorre has no dialogue in this sequence. He's all shifty looks and diabolical grins, but makes a powerful impression nonetheless. "What an evil face!" Ward "thinks" (in voiceover narration) as The Stranger saunters away.
Later that evening, The Stranger returns and (off-screen) murders Ward's snooping neighbor. Ward gets blamed for the crime, and this time he is falsely convicted. No one except Jane believes his story about a strange man "with thick lips, bulgy eyes and a long, white scarf." She begins canvassing the neighborhood, on a frenzied but fruitless search for The Stranger. Along the way, she encounters a host of colorful character players in memorable walk-ons, especially Robert Dudley's postman.
Exhausted and disheartened, she stops at a diner. While she catches her breath, Lorre's hands come into frame With his face off-camera, he speaks his first line of the film. It's appropriately bizarre: "I'd like a couple of hamburgers, and I'd like them raw." Clever director Boris Ingster knew audiences would recognize Lorre's voice at once. As Lorre speaks, Jane has her head down. Viewers want to call to her, "Look up! It's him!" This Hitchcockian device is just one of several brilliant turns by Ingster.
Jane turns and comes face-to-face with The Stranger. For the first time we realize how shabby looking his clothes are. Jane follows him into the street, where he feeds the raw hamburger to a stray dog. "He followed me for two blocks, I had to get him something to eat," The Stranger explains.
This tiny scene quickly humanizes Lorre's bogeyman. He and the dog are two of a kind, both strays. "I wish I could keep him," he laments, "but I have no home to give him."
After seeming smug and malevolent earlier, Lorre now acts fragile and frightened. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he asks as Jane stares at him. He bids her goodnight and, as he walks away, reveals his scarf from under his jacket. Jane immediately recognizes The Stranger is, in fact, the man for whom she's been searching. She bolts after him.
"What do you want? Why are you following me?" The Stranger asks. Lorre's phrasing suddenly becomes formal, almost aristocratic. The softness in his voice just moments before disappears. Subtly, he is demonstrating the way his character's fractured psyche weaves between emotional states. The Stranger agrees to walk the girl home, but grows suspicious again when she begins discussing the recent murders.
"Did they send you to take me back?" he asks, his voice suddenly hushed.
"No! Who?" Jane asks.
Lorre, now panicky, looks around with feverish paranoia. "Don't you know?" he asks. "The people who lock you up!"
Shortly afterward, when he complains that "the people who lock you up" also "put you in a shirt with long sleeves and pour ice water on you," it becomes clear that The Stranger is as much victim as victimizer.
Jane calms him by reminding him that they wouldn't send a woman after him. The Stranger chuckles, relieved.
"The only person who ever was kind to me was a woman," he says. Suddenly all emotion drains from his face. His voice grows dreamy and remorseful. "She's dead now," he adds.
The Stranger is terrified he will be sent back to the asylum, and confesses he committed the second murder (the one for which Ward was convicted) because "he said he was going to report me. I had to kill him." Lorre delivers the line with so much conviction that its mad logic seems inescapable.
After Jane fails in an attempt to call for help, The Stranger realizes he has been duped. Lorre grows chillingly calm. He places a hand on the girl's shoulder and asks her softly, "Why did you lie?" An instant later he is boiling with rage, choking her and snarling, "I'll not go back there!"
She breaks free from him and dashes across the street. The Stranger gives chase and -- in a convenient deus ex machina -- is run over by a truck. Before he dies, he confesses to a policeman that he committed the murders for which Ward and Briggs were convicted. "But I'm not going back," he adds, as his voice grows dreamy again. For Lorre's Stranger death represents a macabre victory (much like Paul Newman's demise in Cool Hand Luke).
Many writers have invested great significance in the fact that before finding his niche as an actor, Lorre studied psychiatry. Some contend this gave him special insight into his mad characters. This is probably an overstatement. But certainly Lorre's interest in psychiatry, paired with the charitable work for the mentally ill which he quietly performed throughout his life, demonstrates that the actor had profound empathy for people with troubled minds.
That empathy allows Lorre to create realistic, three-dimensional personalities instead of typical fright flick caricatures. (For comparison's sake, imagine how Bela Lugosi or John Carradine might have handled Lorre's part in Stranger.) Lorre saw his characters as infirm rather than evil. He always emphasized the redeeming traits of even the vilest villain (as in the scene with the puppy and the hamburgers).
As in his starmaking turn in M, along with other pictures such as Mad Love and Beast with Five Fingers, his characterization here is believably menacing, yet he generates as much pathos as fear. In fact, his performance in Stranger could serve as a sort of Cliff's Notes for Lorre's entire catalog of movie madmen.
If you will excuse another diversion into personal recollection, I cherish Lorre's performance in Stranger for one final reason. For decades my father has battled bipolar disorder (what they used to call manic depression) and has at times had to be institutionalized for brief periods. Unlike Lorre's Stranger, my father is not at all violent. However, of all the actors among all the thousands of screen portrayals of mentally ill characters that I have viewed, Lorre alone captures the look of panic I have seen in my father's eyes at the prospect of being hospitalized again. The Stranger's haunted stare is heartbreakingly authentic.
Lorre's brilliant portrayal is just one component (granted, an integral one) of an endlessly fascinating film. Many film historians credit Stranger on the Third Floor as the first Film Noir. It certainly contains all the Noir trademarks, although I consider Film Noir a movement or a trend rather than a genre and it takes more than one of anything to represent a trend.
Most of the other critical laurels bestowed on the film these days arise from an amazing nightmare sequence, where Ward imagines himself being tried, convicted and executed for his neighbor's murder. This imaginative, almost surreal tour de force ranks among the most effective screen dreams in cinema history. Director Ingster, art director Jan Nest Polglase and cinematographer Nicholas Masuraca (who later worked with Val Lewton) pull the scene off masterfully. If bungled, the same sequence could have sunk the film with unintentional laughs.
Frank Partos' script is first-rate, as is Roy Webb's score. The acting is consistently credible. McGuire and Tallichet are particularly good, along with the always interesting Cook.
However, whatever critical appreciation Stranger on the Third Floor enjoys (and I would argue it remains under appreciated), the film gained only after languishing through decades of obscurity. Although it turned a modest profit, most 1940 observers shrugged off the film as just another B-movie pot boiler. It did nothing whatsoever to advance the careers of it principals.
I am unaware of another starring role for McGuire, whose career was confined to smaller supporting parts thereafter. Tallichet married famed director William Wyler and retired. The film marked Ingster's directoral debut. He waited nine years to direct again and helmed only two more films, both forgettable.
Although Lorre's career continued with unabated success, the star never received the accolades for this performance that his work deserved. Nevertheless The Stranger belongs in that elite society of personages who represent the very finest roles of Lorre's career, an exclusive club which also includes Dr. Gogol, Mr. Cairo and friends.
If you're quiet, you can hear them laughing.
CREDITS: Producer: Le Marcus; Director: Boris Ingster; Screenplay: Frank Partos; Director of Photography: Nicholas Musuraca; Editor: Harry Marker; Art Director: Van Nest Polglase; Associate Art Director Albert D'Agostino; Wardrobe: Renie; Music: Roy Webb; Recorded by: Bailey Fesler; Special Effects: Vernon Walker; Optical Effects: Linwood Dunn. An RKO-Radio Picture, released in 1940 in black and white; Running Time: 62 minutes.
CAST: Peter Lorre (The Stranger), John McGuire (Michael Ward); Margaret Tallichet (Jane); Charles Waldron (District Attorney); Elisha Cook Jr. (Joe Briggs); Charles Halton (Meng); Ethel Griffie (Mrs. Kane); Cliff Clark (Martin); Oscar O'Shea (Judge); Otto Hoffman (Police Surgeon); Charle Judels (Nick); Frank Yaconelli (Jack); Paul McVey (Lt. Jones); Robert Dudley (Postman); Frank O'Connor, Don Kelly and James Farley (policemen); Herbert Vigran, Robert Weldon and Gladden James (reporters); Harry C. Bradley (Court Clerk); Greta Grandstedt (Chambermaid); Katherine Wallace (Woman); Bud Osborne (Bartender); Broderick O'Farell (Minister); Emory Parnell Jack Cheatham and Del Henderson (Detectives); Henry Rocquemore (Boss McLean); Jane Keckley (Landlady); Bess Wade (Chairwoman); Ralph Sanford (Truck Driver); Betty Farrington (Stout Woman); Ray Cook (Drugstore Attendant); Donald Kerr (Man); William Edmonds and Frank Hammond (janitors); Lee Phelp, Max Hoffman and Lynton Brent (taxi drivers); Bobby Barber (Italian man). NOTE: The author would like to acknowledge the preceding, exhaustive cast list was cribbed in large part from George E. Turner and Michael H. Price's excellent book, Human Monsters: The Bizarre Psychology of Movie Villains.
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