LACMA is halfway through its series devoted to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, one of RKO’s prime cameramen in the 1940s and ’50s, and thus one of the key strategists behind the shadowy “noir” look in films such as Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), Out of the Past (1947), and Clash by Night (1952). But for me, the big discovery has been Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), a movie that has managed to completely escape my notice over the years despite the fact that it’s sometimes credited as being the first American film noir.
I write “American,” because as James Naremore argues in his excellent book, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, “film noir” was a 1930s French term applied to Popular Front movies such as Pépé le Moko (1936), Hôtel du Nord (1938), and Le jour se lève (1939) that was revived post-WWII when The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), and Murder, My Sweet (1944) opened in Paris. Borde and Chaumeton’s seminal book, A Panorama of American Film Noir (1955) dates American films noirs from 1941, which is pretty much what I’ve always accepted, but Stranger on the Third Floor–released a year earlier–is unquestionably a fully-formed American noir.
Contrary to journalistic convention, Naremore also argues there isn’t a very strong historic connection between German expressionism and film noir. But Pépé le Moko and Marcel Carné’s Popular Front films boasted German cinematographers Jules Kruger and Eugen Schüfftan, respectively; the latter was an UFA special effects guru who worked with Fritz Lang, and later as a cinematographer for Robert Siodmak and G.W. Pabst (though admittedly not on their most expressionist titles).
Stranger on the Third Floor was created by a Hungarian writer (Frank Partos), a Latvian director (Boris Ingster), and an Italian cinematographer (Musuraca), but it showcases a German heritage: Peter Lorre in fiendish makeup stars as a serial killer stalking the streets; shadowy, cramped rooms convey a clenching sense of Kammerspiel; and an expressionist dream sequence predates the graphic lighting in Citizen Kane the following year (both films share the same art director, Van Nest Polglase). A tribute page for the film offers an evocative selection of images.
There’s a psychological intensity to the movie that belies its awkward dramaturgy. (Nathanael West, who died in 1940, purportedly provided some ghost writing, but the screenplay is no literary achievement.) Though it begins with a witty play on mistaken identity–a man’s fiancee almost doesn’t recognize him after saving a seat for him–its story about a partial witness at a murder trial who suffers mounting self-doubt oscillates between earnest melodrama and absurd exaggeration. The trial features an absent-minded judge, a sleeping juror, and several comments about the inadequacy of the public defender: “I wouldn’t let him defend me if it was for stealing an apple,” groans one observer.
Steadily, the witness (John McGuire) questions not only the limits of his knowledge, but his own moral character; searching his memory for every offhand remark he ever made against a nagging and hypocritical neighbor, a series of flashbacks slide into a sweaty reverie as he imagines himself judged by his speech rather than his actions: “MURDER” proclaims newspapers in what must be 300-point type, and the sequence boasts a transfigured world with geometric shadows, echoing voices, and histrionic, leering faces.
Stranger on the Third Floor is a perfect example of a movie that likely would have been lost in the annals of film history if it wasn’t for the idea of “film noir” elevating and sustaining its reputation; hopefully the fact that it predates the official noir histories won’t diminish its appreciation, because its visual qualities are significant, showcasing Musuraca’s cinematography in its formative stages.