THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

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Rage in the Cage: CAGED (Warner Brothers 1950)

“In this cage, you get tough or you get killed” – Kitty Stark (played by Betty Garde) in CAGED

 

The Grandmother of all “Women in Prison” films, CAGED still packs a wallop, nearly seventy years after it’s release. This stark, brutal look at life inside a women’s penitentiary was pretty bold for its time, with its savage sadism and heavy lesbian overtones, and matches up well with BRUTE FORCE as an example of film noir prison flicks. Everything about this film clicks, from its taut direction by John Cromwell to the use of sound to create mood by Stanley Jones, plus a powerhouse mostly female cast led by Eleanor Parker .

The 28-year-old Parker convincingly plays 19-year-old Marie Allen, given a one-to-fifteen year sentence for accessory to an armed robbery during which her husband was killed. The mousey Marie is indoctrinated, given a number (Prisoner #93850), and poked and prodded by staff, who discover Marie’s two months pregnant. Marie is given light duty by the prison-reform minded superintendent Ruth Barton, but sadistic old-school ward matron Evelyn Harper has other plans.

Marie’s first night inside the walls is a frightening experience for the youngster. She’s befriended by three tough street chicks led by Kitty Stark, boss of a shoplifting gang who wants to recruit the kid when she gets out of stir. When fellow inmate June is denied parole, it’s Marie who finds her hanging during the night, causing her to go into shock and give birth  prematurely. Her mom refuses to take the baby, then she’s denied parole, and a switch flips inside Marie’s head, turning her as hard as the veteran cons.

Tensions flare when Marie finds a kitten outside the prison laundry and takes it in, and a catfight over the cat between Marie and Harper escalates into a full-scale riot! Marie is given three days in solitary by Barton, but before serving the cruel Harper shaves her head. Kitty, who’s spent a month in solitary enduring beatings from Harper, gains justice of her own in a swift and vicious stabbing of the matron in the cafeteria, as Marie cheers her on, yelling, “Kill her, kill her”. Prison life has changed Marie, but not for the better, and the final scene has Barton resigned to the fact that she’s failed, and Marie will be back.

Parker was justly nominated for an Oscar for her performance, as she transforms from young innocent into hardened criminal during the course of the film. Also nominated was Hope Emerson as the sadistic Harper. Emerson’s 6’2″, 200+ pound frame make her an imposing physical presence, and she’s about as mean as a prison screw can get. Neither actress won – Judy Holliday picked up the statuette that year for BORN YESTERDAY, while Josephine Hutchinson won for HARVEY – but a case could certainly be made for them.

Agnes Moorehead’s  part of reform warden Ruth Barton also deserved Oscar consideration. Her battles with bureaucrats and the disrespectful Harper (who treats the inmates like pond scum and constantly refers to them as “ya tramps”) highlight the differences between rehabilitation and punishment, battles that are still going on today (and as someone who once worked inside the prison system, trust me on that). The film gives an impressive cast of women the chance to shine: Betty Garde is the hard-bitten Kitty, Lee Patrick her rival “Vice Queen” Elvira Powell, Jan Sterling the CP (that’s Common Prostitute) Smoochie, Ellen Corby a nutty husband killer, Gertrude W. Hoffman the wise old lifer Millie, Olive Deering the doomed June, and the tragic former star Gertrude Michael as the haughty Georgia. Other Familiar Faces behind the walls include Don Beddoe (as the political hack prison commissioner), Jane Darwell , Marlo Dwyer, Sandra Gould, Esther Howard , Sheila MacRae (billed as Sheila Stevens), Queenie Smith (as Marie’s mom), Amzie Strickland, Nita Talbot, and Ann Tyrell.

CAGED’s tougher-than-the-soles-on-a-streetwalker’s-feet screenplay is by Virginia Kellogg, who wrote the story with Bernard Schoenfeld (both were Oscar nominated). Kellogg, who wrote the stories for the tough films noir T-MEN and WHITE HEAT , was a former reporter who used her contacts to go undercover as an inmate in four different prisons to do research on the subject. The result was this knockout of a movie, as realistic a look at prison life as was possible for the time. The bleakness of doing a bid behind bars, the corruption that still goes on, and the dehumanization of people contributes to the high recidivism rate experienced even today. The women of CAGED are no saints, not by a long shot, but their treatment here offers no hope for redemption, just a revolving door for those tagged as social outcasts. It’s a film that is still relevant today, and a film noir you don’t want to miss.


Fever Dreams: Fritz Lang’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (RKO/International Pictures 1944)

Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his men’s club to meet his pals for supper, but before going in, the three men gaze admiringly at a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window next door. Wanley’s friends, DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) leave after dining, but Wanley stays behind to finish his brandy, and reads a copy of Solomon’s Song of Songs.

As Wanley departs, he stops to again gaze at the portrait – and the woman appears in the flesh, her face reflected in the window! He strikes up a conversation with her, learns her name is Alice Reed, and impulsively joins her for a late night cocktail. Alice takes the professor to her apartment to look at some artist sketches she posed for, all quite innocent. That is, until a man (Arthur Loft) barges into the apartment, angry she’s with someone else, and slaps her hard across the face. A fight breaks out between the man and the scared professor, who grabs a pair of scissors and stabs the intruder to death!

To say things go steadily downhill for Wanley is an understatement, as he methodically concocts a cover-up, dropping the body in a wooded area miles away. His buddy Lalor is on the case, as the deceased turns out to be a big shot financier, whose sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea of course!) comes calling on Alice with blackmail on his mind, and Professor Wanley sinks deeper and deeper into that old familiar noir quicksand…

Fritz Lang’s Expressionist visual roots show up all over this film, and the dark scene where Wanley dumps the body in a rainstorm particularly stood out for me. Krasner’s cinematography is outstanding; he was one of Hollywood’s top DP’s, from his work on 40’s Universal Horrors (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS,  GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN , THE MAD GHOUL ) to film noir (THE DARK MIRROR, THE SET-UP ), comedies (HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH), drama (ALL ABOUT EVE), his Oscar winner THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), and everything in between.

Johnson’s script is a murderous marvel of construction that features a twist ending I admit I did NOT see coming – and I don’t think you will, either! While THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW didn’t supplant SCARLET STREET as my favorite of the Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea/Krasner collaborations, it’s a great film that noir fans will surely love. Like I said before, with all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)

(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t used to seeing at the local bijou. Lewis, aided and abetted by cinematographer John Alton , uses that script as a springboard for some darkly dazzling visuals; the opening scene alone, with a young girl being chased down a dark alley by two menacing thugs, finds Lewis and Alton showing off their talents. The film moves at lightning speed, a pedal-to-the-metal noir that doesn’t let up until the chilling conclusion inside an airplane hangar.

Cornel Wilde  is the obsessed police detective determined to put an end to Mr. Brown’s reign of terror. Wilde had started his own production company along with his wife Jean Wallace (who plays Brown’s moll Susan), and this was their first release. Wallace does fair work in the part, though her performance is eclipsed by the rest of the cast. THE BIG COMBO got them off to a slam-bang start, and their next production, STORM FEAR, found Wilde in the director’s chair for the first time, a seat he would take again for films like THE NAKED PREY, BEACH RED, and NO BLADE OF GRASS.

Mr. Brown wasn’t Richard Conte’s first gangster role, nor would it be his last, but it may very well be his best. Mr. Brown is a smug cocksure sadist, deriding Wilde’s Lt. Diamond every chance he gets (“Book me, small change”, he sneers, referencing the cop’s low-wage job), and his staccato line delivery aids the film’s breakneck pace. Brian Donlevy , no stranger to gangster parts himself, plays his second-in-command McClure, once a big shot, now reduced to flunky status. Donlevy was one of noir’s greatest character actors, and his McClure adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. Helen Walker , in her final screen role, plays the mysterious “Alicia”; to say more about the character would spoil the film, and I want you to see it for yourselves! Suffice it to say Miss Walker gives a bravura career finale.

Many modern critics see ‘gay subtext’ everywhere they look in older films; most of the time it’s something that’s not really there. But the characters of Brown’s hit men Fante and Mingo are without question “more than just friends” in this one. It isn’t anything overt, but Yordan’s script subtly suggests these two psychcopaths are homosexual lovers, and the performances of screen tough guys Lee Van Cleef (Fante) and Earl Holliman (Mingo) leave no doubt in my mind about their off-duty relationship. They don’t flaunt their sexual persuasion or camp it up, but watching their nuanced performances, you just know there’s something beneath the surface. Kudos to both actors for giving these stone-cold killers a deeper shading.

THE BIG COMBO is a gripping crime drama in every way, and a fitting end to Lewis’s film noir body of work. It’s dark, sordid, and unsavory, and must-see for fans of the genre. Those who’ve never had the opportunity to watch it are missing a real treat – and since it’s in public domain, I’ll give you that opportunity right now! Consider it my “Happy Noir Year” present to you and enjoy!:

Snap! Crackle! Pop!: TENSION (MGM 1949)

The best films noir deal with post-WWII disillusionment, and that’s exactly what drives Richard Basehart’s sad sack Warren Quimby in TENSION. This cynical, downbeat, and downright sordid little tale of infidelity and murder is  boosted by first-rate performances from Basehart and scorchingly hot Audrey Totter as his manipulative bimbo of a wife, with a taut screenplay by Allen Rivkin and solid direction by John Berry. It may not make anyone’s top ten list (or even top thirty), but it’s one of those ‘B’ films that really works, provided you’re willing to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half.

Mild mannered pharmacist Quimby met and married Claire while stationed in San Diego during the war. He, like many others, hopes to someday live the American Dream: house, kids, the whole nine yards. Trampy Claire doesn’t give a crap about that; she prefers excitement, the high life. Claire is messing around with well-off Barney Deager, and when Quimby confronts them on the beach, he gets an ass kicking (Deager: “Now get going and don’t come back, ya four-eyed punk!”). Something snaps inside Quimby, and he gets contact lenses, calls himself ‘Paul Southern’, and rents a place to establish a residence, meeting and dating pretty young Mary Chanler.

But Quimby has a plan, and begins a series of harassing phone calls to Deager, saying he’s “gonna get” him. He goes to Deager to tell him there’s no hard feelings, then (as Southern) sneaks into Deager’s house to murder him. But the meek Quimby can’t go through with it, and his plan changes to move forward with Mary and start a new life. Then Claire comes back, Deager is found dead, and homicide cops Collie Bonnabel and Blackie Gonzalez are on the case, ratcheting up the tension to trap a killer…

Basehart is perfect as wimpy Warren Quimby, the would-be killer who can’t get the job done. He’s such an underrated actor, never quite getting that signature role but doing fine work throughout his career. His noir resume includes the classics HE WALKS BY NIGHT and Robert Wise’s HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, mainstream dramas like Fellini’s LA STRADA, MOBY DICK (as Ishmael), THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, and the title role in HITLER. Basehart’s most familiar to fans as Admiral Nelson on Irwin Allen’s 1960’s TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA , adding gravitas to the sci-fi silliness. One of my favorite Basehart films is the early TV Movie SOLE SURVIVOR (1970), a supernatural WWII drama featuring William Shatner and Vince Edwards; you can catch this one on YouTube – it’s worth it!

Noir’s Queen of Mean Audrey Totter is the slutty, manipulative Claire (sexy sax music plays whenever she comes onscreen!), treating Quimby like dirt until she needs him. Claire’s hot as a pistol and hard as nails, and is another fine portrayal in Audrey’s Bad Girl Hall of Fame. Barry Sullivan plays homicide Lt. Bonnabel, introducing the movie in a pre-credits sequence while fiddling with a rubber band. Sullivan’s Bonnabel uses some unorthodox (and probably unconstitutional!) methods to snare the killer (and I’m sure you’ve guessed whodunnit by now), and that’s where that suspension of disbelief I mentioned comes in handy. His partner Gonzalez is another film noir regular, beefy William Conrad Cyd Charisse gets a non-dancing part as sweet’n’innocent Mary, Lloyd Gough plays the unsympathetic victim Deager, Tom D’Andrea is Quimby’s soda-jerk pal, and Familiar Faces Virginia Brissac, John Gaulladet, Theresa Harris, and Phil Van Zandt appear uncredited.

Though TENSION may not rank high on anyone’s all-time great films noir lists, it’s a grimy little ‘B’ thriller that’s worth watching. It’s got good performances by Basehart and Totter, moody cinematography by Harry Stradling, and a premise that, while maybe not believable, will have you stretched out in suspense right until the end.

 

 

 

Face the Darkness: Bogie & Bacall in DARK PASSAGE (Warner Brothers 1947)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” concludes with the genre’s biggest icon, Humphrey Bogart (and he’s bringing Lauren Bacall along for the ride!):

The year 1947 belonged to film noir, as some of the dark genre’s true classics saw the light of day: Robert Mitchum donned that iconic trenchcoat in OUT OF THE PAST , Richard Widmark snarled his way through KISS OF DEATH, Burt Lancaster battled sadistic Hume Cronyn with BRUTE FORCE , Tyrone Power got trapped in NIGHTMARE ALLEY , Rita Hayworth bedeviled Orson Welles as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , Ronald Colman won an Oscar as a cracked actor leading A DOUBLE LIFE, and Lawrence Tierney terrorized the hell out of everyone in his path in BORN TO KILL . Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, noir’s power couple thanks to the previous year’s THE BIG SLEEP , teamed again for DARK PASSAGE, an slam-bang crime drama that may not be quite on a par with those mentioned above, but more than holds its own in the film noir canon.

The movie starts in a unique way, as the subjective camerawork by DP Sid Hickox allows us to see things through the eyes of Bogart’s Vincent Parry, a convicted wife killer who’s escaped from San Quentin. I found this to be most annoying in Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (released earlier in ’47), but unlike that film, not every frame is shot from Parry’s perspective, proving one again that less is more. Parry hitches a ride with a stranger who recognizes him, and he’s forced to knock the dude out. Pulling him into the roadside brush and changing clothes with him, Parry is stunned when a woman he’s never met, Irene Janson, pulls over and offers to help him.

Turns out Irene knows Parry’s former flame Madge, who was instrumental in getting Parry convicted. Irene’s own father was falsely accused of murdering his second wife and died in prison, and Irene believes Parry’s innocent as well. Now calling himself Alan Linnell, Parry meets a chatty cabby named Sam, who  hooks him up with Dr. Coly, a disgraced plastic surgeon who gives him a new face. When Parry goes to his pal George’s apartment to heal, he finds his friend’s also been murdered, and now he has to turn to Irene for help in clearing himself in two murders…

We don’t get to see Bogie’s mug until almost halfway through the film, which went up Jack Warner’s craw sideways, but once we do things really begin to heat up. Writer/director Delmer Daves crafted a corker of a tale based on a novel by hardboiled pulp author David Goodis, though there are some gaps in logic and too much reliance on coincidence to make this one thoroughly believable. But that doesn’t really matter, as we get a fast-paced thriller with Bogie and Bacall torching the screen once again. Daves started as a screenwriter (including Bogie’s early hit THE PETRIFIED FOREST) before making his directorial debut with DESTINATION TOKYO. He has many good-to-great films on his resume, like THE RED HOUSE, BROKEN ARROW, JUBAL, 3:10 TO YUMA , KINGS GO FORTH, THE HANGING TREE, and the blockbuster A SUMMER PLACE, and if you haven’t discovered his work yet, you should!

Agnes Moorehead  is a real bitch as Madge, the jilted lover who got Parry nailed for murder, though cinema crime solvers will have ‘whodunnit’ figured out pretty quick. Bruce Bennett appears as Irene’s wannabe beau Bob, Tom D’Andrea is good as Sam the cabby, Douglas Kennedy plays a detective on Parry’s trail, and ex-Our Gang member Clifton Young is the jerk Baker, a self-described “small time crook” who first gives Parry a lift, then returns with blackmail on his mind. And that picture of a pre-surgery Parry in the newspaper pre-plastic surgery is actor Frank Wilcox.

Franz Waxman  contributes another memorable score, and the song “Too Marvelous for Words” (written by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting) serves as a love theme, vocalized by big band singer Jo Stafford. DARK PASSAGE may not be 1947’s top film noir, but it’s an entertaining little number that held my interest all the way til the end. Plus, it’s got Bogie and Bacall – what more could you ask for?

Dark Genesis: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (RKO 1940)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” continues with what many consider to be the first film noir…

Fans of the film noir genre often cite movies like THE MALTESE FALCON or REBECCA among the first entries in this stylistic category, but a case can certainly be made for STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, a bizarre B-film made by director Boris Ingster. It features all the elements associated with the dark genre: a big city setting, interior monologues, an extended nightmare sequence, flashbacks, Expressionistic set design… hell, it’s even got noir’s favorite patsy Elisha Cook Jr ! The only thing missing is that downbeat cynicism you find in post-war films, but since America hadn’t yet entered World War II, we can forgive the happy ending and concentrate on what makes this movie the seminal film noir.

First, there’s the plot: star reporter Michael Ward is the key witness in a murder case against young Joe Briggs, an ex-con who swears up and down he’s innocent. Though the evidence is circumstantial, Briggs is found guilty and sentenced to die in the chair. Ward’s fiance Jane has doubts and is upset about the whole thing. When Ward’s neighbor Meng, a crusty old cuss who Ward’s had trouble with in the past, is found murdered in his bed, Ward becomes the prime suspect. Jane tries to find the mysterious man Ward saw lurking around the rooming house, a man with “big, bulging eyes, thick lips”, and a flowing white scarf, leading her to danger…

The innovative camerawork is by one of film noir’s masters, DP Nicholas Musuraca, heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Musuraca’s chiaroscuro lighting, drenched in inky shadows, and oddly tilted camera angles help evelvate this low-budget programmer to high art. His work on producer Val Lewton’s 40’s horror films like CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM , GHOST SHIP , CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, and BEDLAM set new standards in that genre, and he collaborated with some of film noir’s best directors: Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE), Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST ), John Farrow (WHERE DANGER LIVES ), Fritz Lang (CLASH BY NIGHT), Ida Lupino (THE HITCH-HIKER ). RKO’s music maestro Roy Webb provided the score, as he did for MURDER MY SWEET , NOTORIOUS , THE LOCKET, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and those aforementioned Val Lewton chillers.

Leads John McGuire (Ward) and  Margaret Tallichet (Jane) never rose above the B ranks, but both are more than competent in their parts (Miss Tallichet retired from the screen after marrying director William Wyler). “The Man with the Flowing White Scarf” is none other than Peter Lorre , who is just a shadow throughout most of the film until the very end, where we learn he’s an escaped lunatic. Though his part is small, Lorre’s creepy as hell! Elisha Cook (Briggs) had already been around a few years in small parts; it’s kind of nice to see him as an innocent victim for a change, instead of his usual weaselly punk parts. Sour old Charles Halton plays sour old Mr. Meng, and you’ll spot Familiar Faces Cliff Clark, Donald Kerr, Paul McVey, Oscar O’Shea, and Herb Vigran in small roles.

Boris Ingster is somewhat of an enigma to me. Born in 1903, he apparently had worked with Sergei Eisnestein in his native Russia before immigrating to America. Married to German actress Leni Stengel in 1930 (they divorced in 1944), Ingster has but three directing credits – this one,  the 1948 comedy THE JUDGE STEPS OUT, and the 1950 low-budget noir SOUTHSIDE 1-1000. He later became a television producer on such series as WAGON TRAIN, CHEYENNE, and most notably THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.  Judging his work solely on STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, I can’t understand why he didn’t have a bigger career as a director. The film moves swiftly, and is full of little touches that would make some big-budget directors green with envy. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to be grateful for this dark gem of a film, the first of the stylistic films noir, and still (despite that happy ending) one of the best.