Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stranger on the Third Floor first film noir? Nah!

Just last week I was able to watch Stranger on the Third Floor, a small film that's largely been dubbed as the first film noir, mainly because of its photography and lighting.

I don't really know. I'm not one seeking rigid definitions, but this is noir only regarding its style, otherwise it's "only" a thriller. It is also a serial killer film, which you would expect from seeing Peter Lorre in it. This is quite inferior to Fritz Lang's M in which Lorre is so magnificent as the child killer.

What's missing from the film so that I can't call it noir? The lead characters are not doomed, for instance - the ending of the film is very much in the happy end vein, and they are the heroes of the story. If the focus had been on Lorre's character (which resembles the M character very much), then this might be noir. It's just not gloomy enough.

And the film in itself is not very good. Of course there is the famous dream sequence which is very well made, and the photography by Nicolas Musuraca who later on filmed some bona fide film noirs is great. The camera angles and shadows really make the film look noir, but then again the similar elements are found in Citizen Kane, and that's a film very few people would call noir. (And the elements that Musuraca is said to have picked from German Expressionistic cinema were used in Hollywood already in the thirties, in films such as Fritz Lang's Fury, films by Josef von Sternberg and James Whale, and even Son of Frankenstein! So that alone doesn't make a film noir.)

Back to the actual film. Many of the actors are bad, especially the hero guy is unbelievably over the top, especially in the scene where he talks to himself alone in his apartment and thinks there's someone out there. The script is silly. I could walk through the holes in it. First the hero shouts out to Lorre in the lobby of a quiet house: "Who are you? What are you doing here?" (several times), without anyone paying any attention, and then he goes back to his apartment and starts thinking he should go back: "What if someone hears me walking there? What do they think?" The killer in the film strikes out (as he very well would, he's Peter Lorre after all), but no one claims having seem him or even paid any attention to him, which is simply impossible. The court scenes in the beginning of the film may have been the writer's idea for a searing critique on the juridical systems, but they strike me only unconvincing. The police don't check upon the wrong man's doings, when he says he worked through the day and received some money.

There are some good scenes throughout the film, and Lorre is his usual good (and Elisha Cook Jr. makes a good minor role), but all in all I would say this is much overrated.

It seems that this is not available on DVD. Thanks to the Finnish Broadcasting Association I was able to see it - but for Pete's sake, start showing these damn films in a better time! This came out in middle of the day and I had to stop working to watch it! Are these films intended to be of interest only to the sick, unemployed and retired? What?

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