Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

“My son, there’s murder in every intelligent man’s heart.” Generally regarded as the first film noir, this taut little paranoid crime thriller clocks in at just 64 minutes. An ambitious young reporter named “Michael Ward” (John McGuire) gets the break of his career when he becomes the star witness at the murder trial of Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who is accused of cutting the throat of a local café owner. The film was directed by Boris Ingster and co-written by Frank Partos (The Snake Pit) and Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust). After Briggs gets convicted largely on circumstantial evidence (mainly Ward’s testimony that he saw Briggs standing over the body), Ward and his girlfriend “Jane” (Margaret Tallichet, wife of director William Wyler) begin to have serious doubts about his guilt. In a fascinating nightmare sequence, Ward dreams he has been convicted of killing his nosy, irritating neighbor “Albert Meng” (Charles Halton, the bank examiner from It’s a Wonderful Life). Although he only appears in the film for about 10 minutes, Peter Lorre chews the scenery brilliantly as “The Stranger,” a creepy drifter who delivers a few classic lines such as “I want a couple of hamburgers … and I’d like them raw.” Tragically, just a little over four months after the movie was released by RKO, West and his wife, Eileen McKenney, died in a car accident just outside El Centro, California, on December 22, 1940.

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