Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
Director, Boris Ingster, Writer Frank Partos (story and screenplay)
Starring: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook, Jr.
A reporter is a witness in a murder trial and then starts to wonder if he did the right thing. Haunting photography and dream sequences that show the influence of German expressionism.
This is a surprisingly engaging film for a 1940 B picture. B pictures were lower-budget features between 50 and 77 minutes, using second level actors, or ex-stars on their way down.
The B pictures were made at a time when the studios still owned the theatres in the country and distributed low-budget films to second on a double bill with the main feature. These films were churned out with less concern for quality than quantity. But, because they were less important, they also received less studio supervision. A number of innovative directors and photographers got their start in these B movies.
The surrealism in the film is innovative and according to writer Robert Porfirio, was radically different from the mystery and crime movies that preceded it. There are stylized sets, bizarre angles and lighting and powerful blurring of dream and reality. The surrealism also fit in nicely with the budget demands. It was consistent with the low-budget goal of shooting on a bare sound-stage, turning a budget necessity into an effective style.
Peter Lorre, who has no lines and appears only briefly in the film, had caused a sensation when he played a serial killer with a fondness for little girls in “M” in 1931. By the time this movie was made, he had already done Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936).
He came to the United States after Hitler came to power, but the studios had trouble casting him. John Huston reestablished his career after casting him in The Maltese Falcon (1941).