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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Looking Through Dark Windows

Stranger On The Third Floor has been long dear to hearts of those who gave up sleep to catch it on forlorn late shows. From such midnight rendezvous came underground renown for this cast-off broadcasters wouldn't use in day or prime time. Here was the first film noir, said letters to journals with limited subscriber base, while others of us hoped RKO's 1940 obscurity might turn up within range of our own televisions. I read about it first in Don Miller's B Movies paperback. That came out in 1973 and soon gathered cult following to equal Stranger's. Miller was a New Yorker who must seldom have seen sunlight for so many low-budget films he chased over wee hours, researching them all when that meant real work in libraries and various trade almanacs. Miller wrote a bible for those wanting to know more about shows a larger public long ago forgot. Only trouble was binding fell apart as if one read was all we'd be permitted, B Movies' pages falling out like autumn leaves gone brown. There was thankfully a 1988 reprint of heartier stock (Amazon available from $5.05), and I'd still call Miller's an essential film reference book. The author considered Stranger On The Third Floor to be perhaps Greatest Of All B's. Prints always looked murky though. Whatever there was of a camera negative probably fed fish decades ago. Warner Archive has lately finessed as good a DVD as Stranger's obscure reputation will justify, their remaster clearing in part blizzards of wear this woebegone six-reeler fell victim to over seventy years of pleasing a small but dedicated following.

Stranger On The Third Floor was made for a paltry $171,000, but still lost money ($56,000). Variety thought it derivative, which made me wonder just what pics they felt Stranger leeched off of, as I can't think of anything before remotely like it. You could say RKO was scrounging German thrillers (a few critics thought so), or maybe it was Stranger's largely émigré crew taking inventory of dark Euro memories from their own pasts. Whatever the origin, Stranger comes off like probing engaged while supervisors weren't looking ... but why should they, with stakes and expectation so low? Peter Lorre was the putative star among an unremarkable cast. He was still as much known for perverse villainy as Mr. Moto sleuthing, even as his part was minimal with dialogue concentrated in final minutes. Suspense was inherent in Lorre's weird persona. His was a brand of sinister American thesps didn't even attempt, and certainly there was no duplicating that face and past tortures it suggested. A whole 40's trajectory for RKO was forecast with Stranger On The Third Floor, as though someone announced this would be house style for a coming ten years. Bill Everson said Stranger anticipated Val Lewton thrillers, and I'm wondering if Orson Welles peeked in while readying Kane. Certainly staff labored here that would go on to distinguish both Lewtons and RKO noirs, including camera genius Nicholas Musuraca, who did five for VL and Out Of The Past besides. Some have labeled Stranger On The Third Floor a horror film, not untoward if only for a nightmare sequence as chilling as any the studio devised, and come to think of it, I did see Stranger a first time on Channel 8's Shock Theatre. That was a weekend from which I returned to find college hall mates who'd also watched and were now improvising their own Lorre dialogue. I like to hurt women with knives, one murmured ... not a line from the film, but withal a fit for this player truly one-of-a-creepy-kind. Interesting how people with then-limited viewing choices saw a late movie and spent a following week in reflection over it. Do TCM broadcasts make such impression now?

WWII servicemen had hands full enough whipping Axis aggressors without coming home to ritual abuse of psychiatry and new fangled truth serums. High Wall is a Metro noir that documents what horrors lay in wait for vets in need of rehab from war traumas, these a walk in parks compared to effects of Sodium Pentothal, a diabolic cure-all touted as express lane toward mental health and even gentle prod to murder confessions where needed. Those needles seemed a fastest means of restoring order and dogged if they don't square away Bob Taylor and plot contrivances you'd have needed three more reels to settle otherwise. Of all movies made in the forties, High Wall is loudest to proclaim Drugs Are the Answer! Was this an agenda MGM meant to promote? I wonder how Code police viewed it. Of course, these were "good" drugs for being relatively new to extensive use, and hospitals were flooded with troubled men out of uniform, so why not seek cures via straightest line? Noir had its way of revealing cracks, however. Asylum staff that treats Taylor in High Wall remind me of Dr. Moreau amidst maddest experimentation, yet these aren't the bad guys and indeed 1947 viewers were cued to regard them as benign healers. Use of hallucinogens in High Wall plays now like fad treatment that surely would have led to dreadful outcome in real life, as I'm told truth serums at the least seldom worked as reliably as movies have us believe.

High Wall is also available from the Warner Archive. Quality is so good I'd have to assume they originally slated it as part of a next Noir box. Wall starts provocatively with Robert Taylor fleeing police in company of a woman he's apparently just murdered and suicide careening his auto off a bridge, conduct unbecoming a matinee idol of then-established standing, but not untypical of new direction this actor took once home from war. Taylor resonates among those engaged by fuller vistas of Hollywood's experience, never mind his contribution to performing arts (more considerable, I'd aver, than he's been given credit for). What gets folks revving about Bob is memory of tall timber he laid to industry subversives as friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. This cast real-life noirish shadows across Taylor's image not unlike ones dogging Elia Kazan's legacy, marking him Exhibit A in a post-war trauma syndrome we've yet to resolve. Such current still generated by a star long gone is rare and to be cherished, whatever a viewer's own politics. For that and a grim countenance Taylor brought back from service, expressed as could-be killer of High Wall, may-be corrupt federal man of The Bribe, or sure enough dealer in death of Undercurrent, I'd nominate Taylor for placement among Most Intriguing Personas of noir's classic era. A lot of writers say never mind all that and label him villain whatever the part, thanks to treachery they say he engaged offscreen, a resolute position sure to enhance modern interest as more of Taylor's work surfaces on DVD (Warner Archive has so far released, in addition to High Wall; The Bribe, Party Girl, and Devil's Doorway, with worthies including Rogue Cop and The Last Hunt hopefully to come).


Anonymous ceelevel said...

your last section reminds me of an interesting message thread at tcm a few years ago--the premise being: name a star who successfully completely changed their image & the answer most agreed-upon was dick powell--but your writing here would add taylor to that company!

8:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Ceelevel, I do think Taylor's image was at the least modified after the war, not as drastically as Dick Powell's perhaps, but certainly things would not be the same as they'd been in the 30's-early 40's. One that Taylor did before the war, "Johnny Eager", sort of previewed what was to come in terms of darker casting for RT.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Among stars successfully changing their images, I think Powell and Taylor have to be front-runners. I would also suggest Robert Preston, although he may be disqualified since he had to go to Broadway to do it.

3:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon comments via e-mail ...

Hi John,

I would love to see "The Stranger on the Third Floor". I think I first heard about this movie in an article written for "Famous Monsters of Filmland" many a year ago...probably the earliest ' Robert Bloch! He cited the nightmare as one of the scariest scenes in movies. We've been through quite a beating in horror movies in years past the '60s, and everything's relative anyway, but I'm still keen on seeing anything that so impressed the great Bob Bloch in his youth. I came into a free set (thank heaven, since I'm currently broke!) of the "Thriller" TV show, and like other shows of that day, many derive from Bloch's ingenious and grisly stories.

Lorre was not only one of the earliest actors identified with horror who I came to know and appreciate, but also the first actor of any sort to knock me flat when he died at a relatively early age in 1964 (I think is right.) I was truly shocked and saddened by this news. The L.A. Times ran a picture of his brother at his funeral who had a remarkable resemblance to him.

As for Taylor, I TOTALLY agree. I think he gets a ridiculously bad rap! Hell, I saw him in "Ivanhoe" when I was a boy, in a reissue, and I thought he was great. I still love that movie, and consider it a kind of bookend to Errol Flynn's immortal "....Robin Hood". "The Last Hunt" is fantastic and shows how good Taylor was, insofar as he's a villain in this one, rare for him in those days. I think the first time I actually saw him 'at the movies', apart from "Ivanhoe" that is, was in William Castle's immensely entertaining "The Night Walker". He was very effective as the surprise baddy in that, too----teamed as you know with his ex-wife, Barbara Stanwyck.

HUAC was, to me, a hideous episode of heartless opportunism. But, as Kazan basically stated in his autobiography, show me one example where Communism ever bettered anyone's life in the whole world! The problem with that committee, besides some of the bastards on it, was the presumption that we were ever in grave danger of being overthrown by Communists, which I think was and is far-fetched. Certainly to have pulled so many decent people's lives out from under them was indefensible.

Ms. Totter, as far as I know, still resides about fifteen minutes away from where I live at the Motion Picture Home! A great actress and presence in so many 'noirs', both as a bad girl and a good one (as in "The Set-Up".)

Thanks for the background on these two interesting sounding movies!


4:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"Director Robert" sent the following by e-mail:

Margaret Tallichet's story is interesting...discovered, groomed, and promoted as an actress by Carole Lombard only to prove that stage fright can defeat even the vaunted Lombardian energy, "Tallie" was far more successful (42 years is one heck of a run in Hollywood) as the wife of William Wyler,

2:44 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I had a nice copy of Stranger On The Third Floor that I taped off AMC back in the 80s.

3:16 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I received "Stranger On The Third Floor" yesterday (along with George Pal's "The Power") and I am delighted to report that "Stranger" looks and sounds just wonderful (even though it is "remastered" NOT "restored" it is, nevertheless, a terrific release)AND that HORRIBLE "C&C Television" logo is now GONE (the one that lopped off the RKO logo-ending and music for the film.)and the film plays out to the end. This release is a MUST have.

6:04 PM  

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