Stranger on the Third Floor

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Stranger on the Third Floor
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Boris Ingster
Produced by Lee S. Marcus
Written by
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Edited by Harry Marker
Distributed by RKO Pictures
Release dates
  • August 16, 1940 (1940-08-16) (United States)
Running time
64 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $171,200 (estimated)

Stranger on the Third Floor is a 1940 film noir, starring Peter Lorre and released by RKO Radio Pictures. The film was directed by Boris Ingster and written by Frank Partos with Nathanael West (uncredited).[1]

Stranger on the Third Floor is often cited as the first "true" film noir of the classic period (1940–1959),[2][3][4] though other films that fit the genre such as Rebecca and They Drive by Night were released earlier.[5] Nonetheless, it has many of the hallmarks of film noir: an urban setting, heavy shadows, diagonal lines, voice-over narration, a dream sequence, low camera angles shooting up multi-story staircases, and an innocent protagonist falsely accused of a crime who is desperate to clear himself.


Reporter Michael Ward is the key witness in a murder trial. His evidence – that he saw the accused Briggs standing over the body of a man in a diner – is instrumental in having Briggs found guilty.

Afterwards Ward's fiancee Jane is worried whether Ward was correct in what he saw and Ward becomes haunted by this question. Next, Ward's neighbor is killed the same way as the man in the diner, but Ward is arrested for trying to point this out to the police. As a result, Jane goes out to try to clear Ward by finding the sinister stranger that Ward saw on the stairwell.



Critical response[edit]

Upon its release in 1940, The New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, called the film pretentious and derivative of French and Russian films, and wrote, "John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet, as the reporter and his girl, are permitted to act half-way normal, it is true. But in every other respect, including Peter Lorre's brief role as the whack, it is utterly wild. The notion seems to have been that the way to put a psychological melodrama across is to pile on the sound effects and trick up the photography."[6]

The staff at Variety also believed the film was derivative, and wrote, "The familiar artifice of placing the scribe in parallel plight, with the newspaperman arrested for two slayings and only clearing himself because of his sweetheart's persistent search for the real slayer, is used ... Boris Ingster's direction is too studied and when original, lacks the flair to hold attention. It's a film too arty for average audiences, and too humdrum for others."[7]

Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, calls the film "An RKO B-film from 1940, done up in high Hollywood expressionism. It's absurdly overwrought (which was often the problem with the German variety), but interesting for it. The director, Boris Ingster, is better with shadows than with actors—venetian blinds carve up the characters with more fateful force than Paul Schrader's similar gambit in American Gigolo, and there's a dream sequence that has to be seen to be disbelieved."[8]

The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported an 83% approval rating with an average rating of 6.6/10 based on six professional reviews.[9]



  1. ^ Biesen, Sheri Chinen (2005). Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. JHU Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-8018-8217-3. 
  2. ^ See, e.g., Lyons (2000), p. 36 ("RKO is usually cited as having produced the first true film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor"); Server (1998), p. 158 ("Often credited as the 'first' film noir")
  3. ^ Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, film noir review and analysis by Bob Porfirio, page 269, 3rd edition, 1992. Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5.
  4. ^ Selby, Spencer. Dark City: The Film Noir. Film listed as: "often referred to as the first true and total film noir", #398 on page 183, 1984. Jefferson, N.C. & London: McFarland Publishing. ISBN 0-89950-103-6.
  5. ^ Stranger on the Third Floor at the Internet Movie Database.
  6. ^ Crowther, Bosley (September 2, 1940). "Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)". Movies. The New York Times. Retrieved December 29, 2007. 
  7. ^ Variety staff (September 4, 1940). "Review: Stranger on the 3rd Floor". Variety 139 (13). p. 18. Retrieved June 6, 2015 – via Internet Archive. 
  8. ^ Kehr, Dave. "Stranger on the Third Floor". Chicago Reader. Retrieved June 6, 2015. 
  9. ^ "Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 6, 2015. 

Additional references[edit]

  • Lyons, Arthur (2000). Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir. New York: Da Capo. ISBN 0-306-80996-6
  • Server, Lee (1998). "The Black List: Essential Film Noir" in The Big Book of Noir, ed. Ed Gorman, Lee Server, and Martin H. Greenberg. New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0-7867-0574-4

External links[edit]