Friday, December 27, 2013

Peter Lorre Double Feature (The Verdict, 1946, and The Stranger on the Third Floor, 1940)

The actors Peter Lorre (1904-1964) and Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954) were very popular film actors after their iconic appearances in the classic crime film The Maltese Falcon (1941).  They ultimately co-starred in nine films between 1941 and 1946, the last of which was The Verdict, based on the detective novel The Big Bow Mystery (1892), by Israel Zangwill (1864-1926).

Israel Zangwill
Zangwill's landmark locked room mystery had been filmed two times before, but I don't believe either of the earlier versions is well regarded.  This third version was scripted by Peter Milne, who had previously written the screenplays for The Kennel Murder Case (1932), adapted from the S. S. Van Dine novel, and a few other mystery/horror films.  It also was the first feature film directed by Don Siegel, who went on to helm, among other films, The Big Steal (1947), with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) and Dirty Harry (1971).

Like the novel upon which it is based, The Verdict is the in Victorian England.  Greenstreet, who unquestionably is the lead in the film, plays Superintendent George Edward Groman, who is cashiered after a man he charged with murder in a prominent case is discovered to be unquestionably alibied--shortly after his execution.

Soon Groman, in retirement, is confronting another murder--that of a man in the locked room of a lodging house, right across the street.  Now Groman has a chance to solve this murder and make a fool out of his scheming, though far less intelligent, rival and replacement, Superintendent John R. Buckley (George Coulouris).

Lorre and Greenstreet

Anyone who has read The Big Bow Mystery will recall the clever locked room plot, which is nicely adapted in the film.  Peter Lorre plays an artist friend of Greenstreet's, but the film is Greenstreet's all the way.  On hand as well are Joan Loring, as the chorus girlfriend of the murder victim, and Rosalind Ivan, one of the great forties film harridans (see The Suspect, 1944, and Scarlet Street , 1945), as the landlady.  She's comic relief in this film.

I found The Verdict quite an enjoyable film, with a tricky plot and some thoughtful reflections on the quality of justice.

The earlier of the two films, The Stranger on the Third Floor, was, it appears, an important step in Peter Lorre's career trajectory.  Despite starring in the famous Fritz Lang film M (1931), the original version of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Karl Freund's Mad Love (1935), I think in 1940 Lorre would have been primarily known to American audiences as the star of the Mr. Moto films (1937-1939).

Peter Lorre as the Stranger

Directed by Boris Ingster, who worked in the Soviet Union with Sergei Eisenstein, Stranger has smashing visuals and a great urban landscape of neon-lit diners and lonely, shadowy boarding houses (the print is nicely restored too). Though he gets top billing, Peter Lorre is hardly in the film; however the snatches we see of him are memorably filmed and he has a great few minutes at the climax.

The thinly-plotted film is about a newspaper reporter, Mike Ward (John McGuire), who is the key witness in the trial of a hard-luck loser, Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr., great as usual in what was to be his signature role), for the slashing murder of a diner owner.  Mike's good girl fiancee (Margaret Tallichet) has her doubts, however; and soon another slashing murder occurs--right next door to Mike's boarding house room!  Soon Mike himself is a suspect.

having a bad dream (John McGuire)

This is a very short film (just over an hour) that might have benefited from a longer running time.  The finale, with Lorre and Tallichet, could have been more drawn out for greater suspense.  A good chunk of the film is taken up by a nightmarish and surreal dream sequence.  It's terrific to watch though.

There are uniformly good performances throughout the film, from law enforcement officials to pressmen to landladies to street vendors.  I especially liked Charles Halton, one of filmdom's great twits, as Mike's nosy and unlikable neighbor, and Ethel Griffies as Mike's nosy and unlikable landlady (nearly a quarter-century later, when she was well into her eighties, she most memorably played that annoying know-all ornithologist in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds).

Stranger has been called the first film noir.  From it we're missing a fatal woman and the ending seems far too sunny--literally and figuratively--for pure noir, but there certainly are a good number of film noir elements, not the least of which is its questioning of the "justice" meted out by a legal system--a point the film shares with The Verdict, which has also been called film noir.*

*(certainly the relentlessly fog-bound Verdict would qualify as film voile)


  1. "Stranger" is a weird little movie, isn't it? I've seen it a few times but all I ever remember is a shot of Peter Lorre looking over his shoulder as he's running up (down?) some stairs, or through a hall, or something.

  2. The dream sequence in Stranger on the Third Floor is the most interesting part of the movie. Lorre shows promise in a very brief role. The one Lorre/Greenstreet movie I am very eager to see is Three Strangers with Geraldine Fiztgerald in one of her earliest roles. I think it's available in an on demand DVD but I'm wary of buying those. Often they skip or pixilate on my laptop.

  3. They filmed three Strangers right before The Verdict, I think. Joan Loring is the "third stranger" in that one.

    Yeah, the dream sequence is a wild and lovely piece of cinema.