Welcome to No(ir)vember, the time of year which gives me the perfect excuse to explore my favourite genre. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going over to the dark side where the women are beautiful but oh so bad and the men are losers and saps, lured by a seductive glance and the promise of one last job which will allow them to escape from this godforsaken city.
The term ‘film noir’ was coined in 1946 by Italian born French critic, Nino Frank who was describing American crime films from this period.
Critics disagree on the point at which film noir died, but its beginnings are easier to pinpoint. In 1940, RKO released a B-movie called ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’, directed by Boris Ingster. Although it was just over an hour long and probably didn’t seem that much different from the standard melodramas typical for this period, the sense of paranoia and dramatic lighting set it apart. Journalist Mike Ward (John McGuire) gets himself a sensational scoop when he witnesses the murder of a shopkeeper across the street. He identifies a nervous taxi driver (Elisha Cook Jr.) as the culprit and it seems a straightforward crime when he is tried and sentenced to the chair. But Mike’s fiancée, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) believes the wrong man has been convicted, doubts that Mike comes to share when he sees a suspicious stranger entering an apartment in his building and believes his neighbour has been murdered.
That night, Mike has a terrifying nightmare that he is tried and sent to the chair for this murder which fills him with a sense of fear he cannot escape from. He goes to the police the next morning to tell them about the stranger, only to find himself arrested. Although not as famous as other noirs, this film remains a remarkable achievement with its sense of unreality, nightmarish visions and dramatic effects borrowed from German expressionism. Two things in particular stand out: Peter Lorre’s performance as the mysterious stranger and the dark vision of art director, Van Nest Polgase, who went on to design a film called ‘Citizen Kane’ the following year which used and developed many of these techniques (the magnificent overhead shots and the extraordinary scene in the library come to mind). Elisha Cook Jr. and Peter Lorre would go on to star in many classics of the genre, but it’s a pity none of the other actors had much success afterwards. Definitely one you need in your collection!