Boris Ingster's 1940 drama Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is credited as being the first bona fide film noir movie, which makes it obviously significant to a list like "1,000 Noir Films: They Shot Dark Pictures, Didn’t They?," but it doesn't automatically follow that the first will also be a quality example of film noir at its most pure or exciting or interesting. Indeed, for the first quarter of this barely hour-long film, I had resigned myself to suffer through a campy melodrama recounting remedial complaints about the American justice system. All of its plot machinations appeared to be plotted out with the utmost transparency: an earnest small-time newspaper reporter (John McGuire ) witnesses the immediate aftermath of a murder, and on his incomplete testimony alone the accused perp (Elisha Cook Jr.) is likely to fry; the moral weight of this responsibility hangs heavy on the journalist's girlfriend (Margaret Tallichet), whose intuition tells her the man is innocent. You can just see the rest of Stranger on the Third Floor proceeding in the most prosaic manner… but it doesn't.
Rather than looking ahead into the classic noirs of the next decade, Ingster's film has more in common visually with the European expressionist classics of the early 1930s and the late silent era, with in-their-face close-ups and shadows so dramatic they might as well be cartoons. Ingster was a protege of Sergei Eisenstein, and the influence shows in this movie's heightened sense of internal menace; further, Ingster's use of the great Peter Lorre — creeping around in the shadows, naturally — clearly hearkens back to Fritz Lang's M. While watching Stranger on the Third Floor, its future importance is merely incidental, with most of its fun coming from its affectionate riffs on the film-making of the past.
If there's a clunkiness to aspects of Stranger on the Third Floor that hold it back — McGuire is stiff, and the movie's legal gripes and symbolism are basic (another ominous look at "Lady Justice," please), and the resolution is too tidy — Ingster leans into the simplicity of the scenario and turns the middle half of Stranger on the Third Floor into a carnival spin through the conscience. McGuire's character imagines himself in a surreal nightmare scenario in which his own circumstantial off-hand remarks and temperamental outbursts are used against him in a capital case. It's a broadly feverish examination of an introspective guiltscape, like Orson Welles' The Trial as an episode of Perry Mason. Stranger on the Third Floor, at its best, evokes "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," and was surely a strong influence on the under-seen Sam Raimi / Joel & Ethan Coen noir-homage Crimewave (1985). Even at its most unadventurous, during its first 15 minutes, Stranger on the Third Floor plays like a less-smug alternative to Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, targeting the same self-interested indifference to justice, but focused inwardly, with its outward gestures more graceful and observational. More passionate is the movie's bristling at the culture of relentless scolding and paranoid moral policing that finds all people guilty at all times.
In addition to Lorre and Cook Jr., who have two of the most perfect archetypal faces of early Hollywood, a few more notable character actors of the era pop-in briefly to deliver strong examples of their trademark tricks, such as Ethel Griffies, Charles Halton, Charles Waldron, Oscar O'Shea and Cliff Clark. Cook Jr. and Lorre, in particular, are in their prime here and give it everything with little actual screen time. While McGuire and Tallichet aren't anything special, there's a nice touch of emerging sensuality to their very straight-laced romance, and the dialog, by Frank Partos and Nathanael West, is low-key but still crackles.
Did I mention that Stranger on the Third Floor is short? At 63 minutes, it's slight, but after its ordinary start it delivers more than expected, and serves as a nice transition piece from expression to noir, one form of dark hard-boiled foreboding to another.