Sunday, January 06, 2008

Stranger in the night

One of the great things about the Christmas holidays is that terrestrial TV channels bung on a load of stuff which normally wouldn't see the light of day (actually, seeing as how most of what I'm talking about was shown between 1 and 3am, it still doesn't, but you know what I mean). This year we had successive nights of classic Val Lewton horrors like 'Cat People', 'Leopard Man' and 'Curse of the Cat People', as well as appearances by films like 'Build My Gallows High' (like 'Leopard Man' and 'Cat People', directed by Jacques Tourneur) and Nicholas Ray's fantastically bleak 'In a Lonely Place' (possibly even more downbeat than the Joy Division song which nicked its title). I don't know what happens - maybe the guy who usually programmes the late night stuff gets in early to book out the whole of Christmas off, so that the only people left in the office are a bunch of noir nerds and horror geeks who just riff on what they want to put on -

"How about 'Cat People'?"
"Jacques Tourner? Great - how about 'Build My Gallows High' then? Same director."
"Well if we're going noir, how about 'Stranger on The Third Floor'"
"You must have heard of it - proto-film noir? Peter Lorre? Elisha Cook Jr.? It's a rare and underappreciated classic!"
"Fuck it, let's stick it on at half past two."
"Yeah, it's a great film for insomniacs, drunks and lonley stoners!"
"Especially as its laced with dread, foreboding and a sweat-soaked paranoid edge! Great."

Not being awake, pissed or caned, I taped 'Stranger on the Third Floor', since I'd never heard of it, and watched it a couple of days later. It has the reputation for being one of, if not the first, film noir, pre-dating John Huston's 'The Maltese Falcon'. A lot of the classic noir tropes are there - the high contrast lighting, the voice-over, the sense of dread - plus, it's got a great extended expressionistic dream sequence.

The story concerns a struggling reporter who gets his big break by apparently witnessing a murder. He fingers a homeless man as the killer after finding him at the scene. The man, Elisha Cook Jr, desperately pleads his innocence, which really strikes at the heart of the reporter's girlfriend. When the reporter goes home to his grotty little rented room, he finds, yes, a 'stranger' right there on 'the third floor' - Peter Lorre. Lorre flees, but then the reporter worries that his next door neighbour has been killed - but worries even more that if he goes in to discover the body, he too will be fingered as the prime suspect (for reasons which we discover in a series of flashbacks). As his paranoia grows - along with a previously absent empathy with Cook's situation - the reporter falls into the aforementioned dream sequence - all looming shadows, Dr Caligari-like sets and cackling lawyers. It's great. From then on, with the reporter under the cosh, its up to his girlfriend to try and track down Lorre - who no-one remembers seeing, despite Lorre looking unforgettably weird (like a cross between Pete Doherty and a housefly).

It's a terrific film - and really good to get the chance to see. The leads (John McGuire as Mike Ward
Margaret Tallichet as Jane) are okay, but a little forgettable, but all of the supporting cast are great especially Lorre, who just seems to be having fun - I mean, he's playing a maniac who's motive seems to be "I'm just fucking nuts, basically", so why shouldn't he?

God, I hope that regular scheduler guy caught that vomiting bug over Christmas, or next week it'll be back to darts or Ewan McGregor and Charley bloody Boorman again.

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