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Stranger on the Third Floor

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Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) starring Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr.
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Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) starring Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr.

In The Stranger on the Third Floor, an aspiring journalist testifies that he saw a young man at the scene of a brutal killing. The man is sentenced to death. The journalist worries that he’s responsible for the death of an innocent man. He begins his own investigation with his girlfriend. But they soon find themselves threatened by a mysterious stranger …


Stranger on the Third Floor is the very first film noir film. With a young … and creepy … Peter Lorre as the antagonist. In addition, it’s an excellent movie. The dream sequence that Mike (the male protagonist) has about being put on trial is excellent, even by today’s standards.

From Mike's dream sequence - an excellent part of the film.
From Mike’s dream sequence – an excellent part of Stranger on the Third Floor.

Cast of characters

  • Peter Lorre (M, The Comedy of Terrors) as The Stranger. The unknown man that Mike suspects of the murders. But he has no proof.
  • John McGuire (The Devil Bat) as Mike Ward. A young, aspiring journalist. He sees Joe at the scene of a brutal murder, testifies to it, and Joe’s condemned. But he’s not convinced of Joe’s guilt. So he begins his own investigation.
  • Margaret Tallichet as Jane. Mike’s steadfast girlfriend/fiancee. Once Mike’s arrested, she continues looking for The Stranger, with only his description. Quite by accident, she finds him in a diner. She follows him, talks to him, and finds out that he’s recently from an insane asylum. And admits to the murders. And then tries to kill her. Until he’s killed in a traffic accident.
  • Charles Waldron (The Big Sleep) as District Attorney. The D.A. who’s convicted Joe Briggs on very little evidence. And arrests Mike for both murders because … he was on the scene of both murders.
  • Elisha Cook Jr. (The House on Haunted Hill) as Joe Briggs. The wrongly-convicted man. Thanks to Mike and Jane, he’s freed. And offers to give the happy couple a ride to City Hall to get married at the end of the movie.
  • Charles Halton as Albert Meng. The unlikable neighbor, who likes to inject himself into other peoples’ lives. Mike makes the unfortunate mistake of telling someone that he could kill him … Shortly before he’s found murdered.
  • Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Kane, Michael’s landlady. Nosy, pushy, etc.

Critical quotes

“I told you not to drink coffee before going to bed.”

Albert Meng (Charles Halton) — explaining Mike’s extended nightmare

“He was going to report me, so I had to kill him.”

The Stranger (Peter Lorre) — recently from an insane asylum, where they made him wear shirts with long sleeves and pour cold water on him.

‘I’m not going back.”

Dying Stranger (Peter Lorre), who’s confessed to the murders after chasing Jane to kill her … and being struck by a car. But he’s happy … He’s not going back to the asylum.

“it’s alright lady, this one’s on the house.”

Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) – paying back the reporter for proving his innocence

Editorial review of Stranger on the Third Floor courtesy of

Critics and fans agree: Stranger on the Third Floor is the little B picture that launched one of the greatest movements in cinema history: film noir. Peter Lorre plays the eerie title role in this once-neglected gem about a reporter (John McGuire) whose testimony sentences a small-time loser (Elisha Cook Jr.) to the electric chair for murder. When the reporter himself is fingered in a second murder, he realizes both crimes are the work of a furtive stranger – but will anyone believe him?

All the shadowy, shivery, angled angst of German Expressionism is here, married to the hard-boiled moral ambiguity that marks the genre. The highlight: a suspense-and-sweat-drenched dream sequence that jolted 1940 audiences into an exciting new way of looking at the movies.

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