Plot Synopsis: Though he doesn’t speak his first line of dialogue until the film’s final ten minutes, Peter Lorre spiritually dominates the fascinating RKO melodrama Stranger on the Third Floor. The plotline is carried by John McGuire, playing Ward, a newspaper reporter whose courtroom testimony sends the hapless Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr). to the death house. Ward is certain that he saw Briggs leaving the scene of a murder, but as the days pass, he is tortured by guilt and doubt — especially during the film’s surrealistic knockout of a nightmare sequence. When another murder is committed, Ward finds himself as much a victim of circumstantial evidence as the unfortunate Briggs. The reporter’s girlfriend (Margaret Tallichet) tries to clear Ward….and that’s when she first makes the acquaintance of Lorre, who is heard ordering a pound of raw meat! Stranger on the Third Floor was a “film noir” long prior to the genesis of that cinematic movement. Long ignored or trivialized by film historians, this 7-reel quickie has in recent years graduated to classic status.
— Hal Erickson, AMG
Arguably the first real film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor features a dream-like, expressionistic world as photographed by Nicolas Musuraca (one of the great cinematographers), with art direction by Van Nest Polglase (who would work on Citizen Kane). Late one night, the hero (Mike Ward) sees a stranger (Peter Lorre) lurking around an apartment building. He fears his neighbor is dead because he doesn’t hear the neighbor’s snoring and thinks the stranger may be responsible. He falls asleep, though, and dreams that he has been arrested for murder. When he wakes, he runs next door and finds the neighbor’s throat slashed and now the police believe he is responsible for the crime. Told in only 64 minutes, Stranger on the Third Floor is drenched in paranoia.
— 10 shades of noir, imagesjournal.com