A 62-minute-long, 1940 B-movie whose director you haven’t heard of and whose top-billed star has barely ten minutes of screen time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stranger on the Third Floor is nothing remarkable, but its reputation precedes it: Here we behold, if the legends are true, the first film noir.
José, a lover of noir, both likes and dislikes this line. On the one hand, it enjoyably disrupts what is already a fairly shaky narrative of noir beginning practically overnight in 1941; on the other, noir is a term that encompasses many visual styles, stories, character types, associated genres and influences, and artistic movements like this develop gradually, not immediately. But this taxonomic discussion says nothing of Stranger on the Third Floor‘s quality.
And for a good fifteen minutes or so, that quality is not promising, but the film explodes into life upon the protagonist’s descent into a hallucinatory nightmare brought on by guilt and fear. It’s José’s first time seeing the film, and immediately he proclaims its dream sequence as one of cinema’s greatest. And throughout the film, before, during and after this central visual treat, there is conveyed a vivid sense of the difficulties of life in Depression-era America, alongside a severe critique of the absurdity of a justice system that can be relied upon to offer nothing of the sort. All of which is to say nothing of Peter Lorre, who imbues his titular stranger with both understandable threat and surprising empathy.
So, Stranger on the Third Floor, The First Film Noir, is rather more than an historical curio. It embodies stylistic and thematic developments that were taking place in American cinema of its era, though the question of what counts as first is best left to those who think it’s even deserving of an answer, let alone possible to establish one. It’s a film that is on its own terms deserving of your attention, and in between its B-movie cheapness and clunkiness, offers something truly great.
The lights went out in American cinema just before the iron curtain went down in Europe. ‘ In Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, we’re told, ‘”Film noir” is literally “black film,” not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting dark mood in American society, but equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to help relieve them.’ According to James Naremore, ‘thrillers of the 1940s and 50s…were perversely erotic, confined largely to interiors, photographed in a deep-focus style that seemed to reveal the secret life of things, and often derived from the literature of alcohol – a substance especially conducive to desire, enervation, euphoria, confusion and nightmare…Indeed the narratives themselves are often situated on the margins of dream as if to intensify the surrealist atmosphere of violent confusion or disequilibrium that (French critics) Borde and Chaumeton regard as the very basis of noir’.
Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady fits most of the characteristics they all describe but doesn’t make Rosenbaum’s list. It seems a key noir but one that doesn’t feature as much in the discussions of the mode as one might expect. In the introductory essay entitled ‘The Making of Phantom Lady: Film Noir in the Starting Blocks’ that accompanies the Arrow Academy edition of the film, Alex K. Rode contextualises it alongside Double Indemnity and Laura and credits it with jumpstarting the career of Joan Harrison as producer, Cornel Woolrich and Siodmak himself and writes that ‘the picture became a stylistic trendsetter for the emerging film noir movement’.Though a popular success in its day, Phantom Lady is a noir treasured primarily by connoisseurs of the genre.
Phantom Lady begins with an extraordinary close-up of the back of a woman’s head (Fig A). She’s wearing an ostentatious fur-lined hat whose plumes extend practically to the edges of the 4-3 frame (see fig. 1). Who is this woman? Why so ostentatious a hat? Why is she filmed from behind? Why is the focus shallow so that the emphasis is on the back of her head and on her hat? Who is this faceless woman with fur and plumes? All will be important but the film doesn’t tell us right away. Instead, the the hat seems to come into being with increasing light, the camera pulls back, the set comes into focus – a bar –we see a barman, the woman turns her head, shows us her face and we see her borrow a nickel. The camera begins to pursue her, but we don’t know where her destination is because rather than trail her there, the camera instead follows an incoming man to the bar. This sequence shot will be rhymed by the last sequence shot in the scene but the scene there will end on the barman for reasons that will subsequently become clearer. This is a film where every camera movement, every choice of composition or editing seems purposeful.
In three minutes a world, a mood, and a dilemma are clearly established. A lonely man meets a lonely woman bar. He’s got tickets for a hit show but has been stood up. Will she join him? The woman, hysterical for reasons not yet known to us, agrees but only on condition that they don’t exchange names and addresses. From the first shot, the film hooks us narratively and has us purring with pleasure at the skilled and inventive visual storytelling. Just as importantly, from the first scene, the élan and complexity of the staging, announces that one is witnessing the work of a great director.
I felt like David Parkinson, when he writes on ‘How I Fell for Robert Siodmak’, there are some directors, ‘who knock you for six the first time you encounter one of their films, with the result that you not only remember that particular epiphany for years to come but immediately want to see more of their work.’ Phantom Lady proved a similar encounter with Robert Siodmak for me as well: the staging at the scenes at the bar, the angles, the shooting in depth, the travelling shots across the bar, it’s not dazzling, it doesn’t strike you dumb, but one just purrs with pleasure at seeing a filmmaker who knows his way around camera and mise-en-scène as ingeniously as Siodmak does here.
In another excellent piece on noir for the BFI, Parkinson writes: ‘Siodmak didn’t patent the noir formula, but he showed how to blend German expressionism and French existentialism with American angst and, in the process, he directed more canonical landmarks than anyone else in the new genre’s heyday. Dismayed by the world around him, Siodmak examined societal injustice, domestic turmoil, gender conflict, sexual repression, psychological trauma and the rise of the career criminal. Preferring to shoot on controllable studio sets rather than on location, he used deep-focus photography, precise camera moves, meticulously designed mises-en-scène and sculpted lighting effects to create milieux beset by paranoia, greed, lust, obsession and violence. Multiple flashbacks, rapid cuts, mirrored images and unsettling scores reinforced the sense of urban alienation, moral decay and nightmarish paranoia.’ Not all of these are evident in Phantom Lady but most are; and that’s part of the enduring fascination of the film for me: how a film that is not quite good enough can still be a canonical noir, arguably the ur-text of the genre (though I’m quite happy to use cycle or style or mode if that better fits your understanding of the body of films. I in fact prefer cycle to refer to these films from the early 40’s to late 50s).
Phantom Lady raises interesting dilemmas; it’s the work of someone who has a mastery of the medium but who doesn’t quite have control of the material he’s given to work with; it’s also one of the most memorable and significant of the cycle of 40s film noirs, sharing the same sense of dislocation and alienation, the trope of the investigation or search for the woman – and this film manages to find several ‘phantom ladies’ –; the distinctive high key-lighting that encases a world in shadows that are not merely landscape or background but moral and in this case almost metaphysical. Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell, through their skill at composition and lighting, make of these shadows and shapes some of the most beautiful and haunting images of 1940s cinema. Yet, the pulpiness of the material – adapted by Bernard C. Shoenfeld from a Cornell Woolrich novel he wrote under the name of William Irish — and some of the worst acting of any landmark film prevent this from being as good a film as its impact would suggest.
Yet the film is full of interesting tangents; extra-diegetically, the screenplay is credited Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s past and future collaborator. Does this have any bearing on the film’s focusing on a woman who’s impersonating women, performing different types of femininity, and in search of a ‘Phantom Lady’ to help save the man she loves? The film also has proffers a wink to Carmen Miranda, the other and extra-diegetic Chica Boom Girl, then at the height of her fame and being impersonated by everyone, perhaps most famously Mickey Rooney. . Franchot Tone, the biggest marquee star in the film, only appears half-way through and as a villain. The film links the then fashionable Freudian psychology to madness, and links the villain to Modern Art explicitly by associating him with Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Serial killing and Modern Art go together in this film.
Visually the film clearly owes a debt to German Expressionism and the use of lighting, canted angles and overt symbolism is fascinating particularly in the extraordinary sequence where Elisha Cook Jr. jams with the jazz band. The scene with the secretary following the barman to get him to confess that he does know the ‘Phantom Lady’ are also examples of superb noir mise-en-scène: staged in depth, the film begins by showing Carol (Ella Raines)alone, staring; then people gather, then she’s the only there, then she disappears. Later, when we’re shown her following him, amidst these little pools of light illuminating little but the rain, we only see her (superb) legs. There’s then this wonderful moment at the train station when they’re waiting for the train and each of them is acting with their eyes, and there’s this instant when it’s indicated he might push her but for this black lady entering the station. It’s a lovely moment of tension, indecision; the hint that something much darker than what we’ve seen so far is a possibility. The whole scene culminates in the bartender being run over by a car whilst trying to get away from her. She’s wearing a plastic see-through rain-coat not unlike Joan Bennett’s in Scarlett Street; whilst all that’s left of the duplicitous barman is his hat, in a puddle of water on the road, glistening from the light of the street lamps in the cold dark night.
The film is marred by the performances of the leads. Allan Curtis is handsome but very wooden. Ella Raines is very beautiful if stiff as the good-girl secretary and then hams it up way too broadly when she impersonates the good-time girl. As already indicated Franchot Tone appears late in the movie, as the hero’s best friend, and everything that prevented him from being a star — he can pass for handsome but isn’t quite, there’s a slight superior sourness to his puss and a kind of distancing to his person, part of the reason that though highly regarded as an actor, he never quite made it as a star – is used very effectively here. Indeed, Siodmak does better with the supporting players – Regis Toomey is a delight as the detective who’s always hewing gum, always in character, always focused on what’s happening on the scene. His eyes are always doing something, particularly noticeable in relation to the lovely lump that is Alan Curtis. And of course the superb Elisha Cook Jr. as the nervy, needy, and seedy sideman.
Structurally, the film has a fascinating premise: everyone remembers him (the bartender, the cabdriver) but no one remembers her; she’s the Phantom Lady. The film, like other noirs, involves an investigation of a woman (the wife who’s murdered, the witness who’s disappeared, etc) but here, and unusually in noir, it is a woman who is chercheing la femme and the woman rescues the man rather than cause his destruction, and she does this by donning different masquerades of womanhood. It’s quite extraordinary.
Visually, the film is beautiful with arguably as many images that are both typical and iconic as in any noir. The writing is pulpy; the acting often amateurish and stiff. But, oh the direction: the direction is a thing of beauty. After I saw The Spiral Staircase last year, I wrote, The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them’. This is at least as true of Phantom Lady but with even more beautiful images and ingeniously directed scenes that act almost as contemporary set-pieces. A B-movie, but one in which phantom ladies, masquerades, performativity, modern art, madness and desire intersect in dark and rainy urban streets; A B-movie directed by a master of the medium.
Aside from the fine introductory essay by Alan K. Rode, the Arrow Academy release also features Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir, an interesting documentary featuring contributions from filmmakers who worked in the original post-war classics (John Alton, Edward Dmytrik, Robert Wise) but mainly as a starting point to an understanding of the 90s revival (contributors here include Dennis Hopper, John Dahl, Carl Franklin, James Foley and others. Critic Ruby Rich is the standout contributor in the film.
 Alan Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, Robert Porfirio, ‘Introduction: The Classic Period’ Film Noir: The Encyclopedia London: Overlook Duckworth, 2010, p. 15.
 James Naremore, ‘American Film Noir: The History of an Idea’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, no. 2. (Winter, 1995-960, pp. 12-28, pp. 18-19.