Although rather awkwardly titled and largely forgotten today, the 1935 film The Passing of the Third Floor Back was very popular in Britain upon its release. It draws together two features of the interwar British film industry that have been discussed across various previous posts on this blog. Like, for example, Pygmalion and The Lodger it is based on existing source material. In this instance, this was a short story and play both written by popular writer Jerome K. Jerome before the First World War. The film also draws on high-profile European talent in its director, Berthold Viertel, and its star, Conrad Veidt. This highlights the ongoing international nature of the British film industry between the wars.
Conrad Veidt was a hugely popular and famous German actor with a long career in silent cinema, most notably with lead roles in such classics as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Anders als die Anderen (1919), the latter being a landmark of LGBTQ+ silent cinema. In 1933, Veidt left Germany in light of Hitler’s recent assumption of power; as well as him having politically opposing views to the nazi’s, Veidt’s wife was Jewish. Veidt established himself in Britain and made twelve films for British studios until the outbreak of the Second World War. Film historian Sue Harper considers The Passing of the Third Floor Back ‘the apotheosis of [Veidt’s] acting career.’
The film’s director, Berthold Viertel, was an Austrian émigré filmmaker and friend of Veidt’s. After making The Passing of the Third Floor Back, Viertel only made one more film, 1936’s Rhodes of Africa. Like Veidt, Viertel’s political sympathies were left-of-centre, which comes through clearly in their version of The Passing of the Third Floor Back. The short story and play on which the film were based did not foreground class issues in the same way, indicating that these were specifically scripted in for the film. Incidentally, the script of the film was co-written by Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and frequent scriptwriter.
The film’s rather awkward title refers to the room Conrad Veidt’s character, an unnamed Stranger, takes in the boarding house of Mrs Sharpe. At the opening of the film, we see Stasia, the young housemaid, try and grow a flower in the house’s kitchen. She gets scolded by the stern Mrs Sharpe, and frequent allusions are made by both Mrs Sharpe and the other boarding house guests to Stasia’s background as a young ‘delinquent’. Then the Stranger arrives at the door, asking for a room. Mrs Sharpe leads him up to the back of the top floor, presenting him with a tiny room overlooking rooftops. Although Mrs Sharpe is expecting the Stranger to haggle and argue, he instead compliments the room and placidly accepts her terms.
The rest of the film takes place over three days only. On the evening of the Stranger’s arrival, two of the other boarders are due to get engaged. Young and pretty Vivian is entering into this engagement with the odious Mr Wright because it will save her family from financial ruin. In reality, Vivian is in love with a young architect who also lives in the house. During evening dinner, the Stranger stares intently at Vivian, and she decides not to go through with the engagement. Throughout the rest of the evening, the Stranger keeps using this ‘mesmerising’ stare to mentally force people to act in accordance with their true desires. Another boarder, keen to amuse everyone with superficial show tunes on the piano, is convinced to play classical music instead. A conversation the Stranger has with the architect leads the latter to admit that he too is in love with Vivian.
The next day is a Bank Holiday Monday, and the Stranger generously offers to take the whole boarding house party out on a steamer to Margate. Mrs Sharpe allows Stasia to come along, and for the first time the servant girl is accepted as a full member of the house party. On the boat, everyone enjoys themselves. The Stranger has a conversation with Miss Kite, one of the lodgers who is ‘the wrong side of thirty’ and very insecure about her looks. When Stasia falls off the steamer, Miss Kite jumps into the water without hesitation to save her. Her conversation with the Stranger has (temporarily) allowed her to stop worrying about her appearance. Miss Kite’s heroic deed earns her the appreciation of the pianist.
Although everyone seems improved by the Stranger’s gentle attentions and insistence on good manners, one man is not impressed. Wright, who got spurned by Vivian, is a rich man who profits off slum housing. Having lost Vivian, he makes it clear to the Stranger that evening that he will do everything he can to swing the pendulum of change the other way. He explicitly addresses how the Stranger has influenced everyone to ‘do good’, and how he will remind everyone of their baser emotions. Indeed, the next morning, Wright’s influence leads to quarrels and frustrations across the house. People appear to have forgotten what kindness and politeness can do to make everyone’s life more pleasant.
At the end of that day, a burglar kills Wright. Initially, the house blame Stasia; then the Stranger. Their mob mentality, once its revealed they were wrongfully accusing their peers, provides a wake-up call to the Stranger’s kindness. He leaves the house, satisfied that he has now made a lasting impact on the lodgers’ worldviews.
Throughout, the Stranger is quite clearly analogous to a Christ-like figure, advocating kindness in every action. Wright appears to be set up as a sort of Lucifer, and the discussion between Wright and the Stranger tantalisingly suggests that Wright ‘recognises’ the Stranger and the two have been at odds before. Yet the film grounds these Christian analogies in practical class-based discussions, particularly by making Wright a profiteering landlord. Although the religious undertones make The Passing of the Third Floor Back a somewhat dated and unfamiliar viewing experience for modern audiences, its social commentary (unfortunately) still feels very relevant.
 Sue Harper, ‘Thinking Forward and Up: The British films of Conrad Veidt’, in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 2000), 121-137 (p. 122)
 Ibid., p. 132