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  Stranger on the Third Floor Stay Awake
Year: 1940
Director: Boris Ingster
Stars: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook Jr, Charles Halton, Ethel Griffies, Cliff Clark, Oscar O'Shea
Genre: ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Michael Ward (John McGuire) goes into the local coffee shop to meet his girlfriend Jane (Margaret Tallichet) for breakfast. He has good news, and outlines his plans to buy a brand new kitchen, complete with refrigerator and washing machine - but how can he afford this, Jane asks? The answer is that he has just won large a raise for his newpaper job due to his crucial testimony in a murder trial. He witnessed seeing a man (Elisha Cook jr) in a diner who appeared to have just killed the owner, Nick, by cutting his throat; the man fled but Michael gave a good enough description for him to be caught, However, the accused protests his innocence, and Jane wonders if he is guilty after all...

This powerful little B movie was credited with being the first of the film noir genre, and even though it doesn't completely fit the template storywise, its appearance certainly does with Nick Musuraca's atmospheric photography standing out. Scripted by Frank Partos, it starts breezily enough with its hero apparently oblivious to the darker side of humanity, despite being a witness in a murder trial. He's the kind of chirpy protagonist that could fit in with most light leading men of the period, but take a look at his girlfriend to get a hint of the way the plot is unfolding: although sunny of disposition herself, she's filled with doubt about Michael's story and the way he's making money out of it.

The trial we see is a curiously light hearted one, considering the odd gory detail we hear ("the head was almost severed from the body"). The judge is an absent minded buffoon, barely paying attention, and one of the jurors falls asleep after being up all night with toothache. Only Cook brings a sense of panic, a man drowning in his fate as he cries out that he never killed anyone. But the evidence is against him, and eventually the jury announce their verdict: guilty. Here the film commences its dive into darker waters, as Cook is taken away to be executed, screaming in terror, and Jane, who has been present, rushes out deeply disturbed with Michael following to comfort her.

She doesn't want to go out that night, and Michael goes back to his cramped apartment alone, turning over the events of the trial in his mind (we know this because of a handy, hushed voiceover that lets us in on his thoughts). Here the lighting of the film has grown noticeably shadowy and more ominous, more like a nightmare. On his way up the stairs of the building, he almost bumps into a strange figure in the dark - it's Peter Lorre in a small but important role, who doesn't utter a word but throws his scarf over his shoulder and hurries away. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out that this mystery man could well have something to do with the murder.

There then follows a superb sequence of paranoia and dread as Michael fantasises that his hated, nosey parker neighbour is the killer's next victim and that he will be held responsible for the death. A startling dream sequence that turns the previous courtrooom scenes into an alarming parody and make him realise what it's like to be on the other end of false accsusations and he wakes bathed in a cold sweat. From then on it's a journey into another innocent man accused plot as Jane has to track down the real killer; Lorre is an inspired choice, haunted, creepy and pathetic, yet, as he finally gets to tell someone what's been tormenting him, unnervingly sympathetic. Although enjoying a happy ending, it's the moody nightmares of the central story that stay with you and are repsonsible for its following: it's perfect for catching on late night TV. Music by Roy Webb.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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