The Spiral Staircase (1946) Robert Siodmak

The opening scenes of “The Spiral Staircase” where we first meet Helen (Dorothy McGuire) takes place in a hotel ballroom that has been set up as a make shift Movie Theater. The hand written sign states there are two showings, 4:30 and 7:30. There is a silent film flickering on the screen, a woman is on the piano accompanying the storyline. In the back, we see a “projectionist” hand cranking the film through the projector. Finally, there is the audience sitting on hard wooden benches enthralled by the flicking of this infant art. It is a great scene for film lovers who get a glimpse at what it was like when the movies were young.

While the movie is playing, up in one of the hotel rooms a young woman is changing her clothes, the closet door is open and we get an eerie feeling she is not alone. The camera moves toward the clothes and suddenly we can sense there is someone in the closet. The next shot is an extreme close up of a wide-open eye, almost hidden between the hanging clothes. In the eye we see the reflection of the woman who is about to be murdered.

It’s a brilliant opening to a magnificent thriller that Hitchcock would have been proud to have made. Instead, the film is the child of another master of dark suspense, Robert Siodmak and the master of shadows and light, Nicholas Musuraca. It is Musuraca’s evocative lighting, his painting shadows on the walls, combined with the masterful camera placement of Siodmak that make this film so thrilling. A combination of low-angles and stark lighting against wrought iron fences and circular a staircase creates an eeriness that sends chills down the spine. The entire film is painstakingly crafted and well acted. The film is both a throwback to works like “The Old Dark House” where there are drenching rains, crackling thunder, candles that mysterious blow out, and the more current cinema of directors of recent thrillers like John Carpenter.

Though the plot is standard fare, the fine direction and magnificent cinematography make it all quite terrorizing. Helen is a mute servant for the sick and elderly bed-ridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also living in the mansion are the ill matriarch’s womanizing son Steve (Gordon Olivier), her stepson, Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), his assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming),  an abusive old biddy of a nurse (Sarah Allgood) , Mrs. Coates the housekeeper (Elsa Lanchester) who likes to hit the bottle and her groundskeeper husband, Mr. Coates. There is the new doctor in town, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) who wants to take Helen to Boston for treatments that will hopefully restore her voice, the result of a childhood trauma.

When another beautiful handicapped woman is murdered in town, the third in a series, it becomes apparent a serial killer is on the loose focusing on “imperfect” women. Fearing Helen might be next, Mrs. Warren tells her that she should leave town immediately, go somewhere safe. However before she can get out……..well, let me stop here, I don’t want to spoil it.

Most of the story takes place inside the Warren’s large Victorian style home. The murder suspects are plentiful. There is the womanizing Steven who is having a fling with his brother’s secretary Blanche, or maybe it is the “kind” Professor Warren, or maybe it is the groundskeeper Mr. Coates who sneaks leering peaks at Helen.  Who the killer is becomes fairly obvious but this does not distract from the fun.

The movie is based on a novel called “Someone Must Watch” by Ethel Lina White who also penned the original story that was the source for Hitchcock’s film, “The Lady Vanishes.” The novel was first turned into a radio play with Helen Hayes. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli who would go on to write other suspense films like “Cause for Alarm”, “The Suspect” and “Beware, My Lovely.” The screenplay would not only change the novel’s setting from England to New England but would also move the setting back from contemporary times to the early turn of the 20th Century to give it a more gothic feel.  At one point, Ingrid Bergman was considered for the lead role.

The cast is a good one starting with Dorothy McGuire’s performance as Helen. Though mute, McGuire manages a wide range of emotions in a compelling performance. Surprisingly, Ethel Barrymore was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the belligerent bed-ridden matriarch of the Warren family. Not that she is bad, she’s fine, it just seems like the role did not require the best use of her talents. The rest of the cast includes George Brent as the stepson, Gordon Oliver as Steven her playboy son, Rhonda Fleming is Professor’s secretary who has a fling with Steven and a rib tickling performance from Elsa Lanchester as the inebriated Mrs. Coates.

“The Spiral Staircase” became a blue print for many disabled woman thrillers that would follow in its path, “See No Evil,” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “Wait Until Dark” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” to name a few. The film was remade in 1975 with Jacqueline  Bisset and again in 2000 as made for television movie with Nicollette Sheridan.  Almost needless to say neither reached the level of the original film.

****1/2

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14 comments on “The Spiral Staircase (1946) Robert Siodmak

  1. J.D. says:

    I love this film for many of the reasons you stated so eloquently in your post. The mood and atmosphere in this film is incredible – so textured and immersive! This film is a great example of why b&w cinematography is so effective for these kinds of films. The use of shadows and light is something else and really goes a long way in building suspense.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much J.D. B&W photography is a wonderful art that is not as appreciated today as it should be and this film is a prime example of its expressive beauty.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    I have loved this film with a marked passion since I was a teenager, and I’ve never resisted promoting it over the years. The compelling atmospherics, staged during a most convincing rain storm, and the domineering presence of the family matriarch, played by Ethel Barrymore has stayed with me, and has the electrifying opening with the murder in the room over the cinemateque, and the terrifying nocturnal walk by Dorothy McGuire. In any case, this is a great review, and the points I’ve made are part of your own appreciation of the film, which may well be Siodmak’s best.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, I am well aware of your affection for this film and I actually watched it recently for the first time because of your recomendation. It is a wonderful atmospheric masterpiece of B&W photography. Thanks again!

  3. […] John Greco (bless him!) has a fantastic review up at his place on Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase, a gothic 40’s Hollywood gem: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/02/28/the-spiral-staircase-1946-robert-siodmak/ […]

  4. Tony D'Ambra says:

    A fine review John, and you are spot on in highlighting the contribution of DP Musuraca.

    I watched it again only a couple of weeks back, and got hold of a copy of the shooting script, as I wanted to see how much of the mise-en-scene was in the screenplay and how much came from director Siodmak. From my reading, Siodmak’s contribution is quite siginificant. One example. The shooting script does not describe Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) physically or her attire in the scene in her bedroom just before she decides to leave – her how is down and loose and the bodice of her dressing-gown open. Up till then her hair was always in a bun and she was dressed primly. I think that Siodmak deftly evoked her erotic ‘new’ persona to telegraph the sexual elements of the killer’s psychosis, and her coming decision to break free…

    • John Greco says:

      Tony,

      Thanks very much for the insight on the shooting script vs. the final film. Extremely interesting stuff and definitely delineates the difference marking Siodmak’s own contributions to the film.

  5. […] – The Spiral Staircase (1945 Robert Siodmak) Taunt direction and eerie magnificent cinematography make this a  most […]

  6. […] McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1945, dir. Robert Siodmak) […]

  7. vinnieh says:

    Great post, I watched this recently and I have to say it is so atmospheric and nail-bitingly effective.

  8. Manuela says:

    What a wonderful review of one of my most beloved films. Since I saw “The Spiral Staircase” for the first time I immediately fell under its spell.
    The interplay of light and shadow, the sheer unbearable suspense, the great actors (this movie immediately made me an admirer of George Brent ) the eery music score – all this is so brilliant.

    These unforgettable scenes for instance the big eye of the murderer (actually not by the actor himself but by the director of this movie) watching his victims, the murder of Blanche in the cellar, Mrs. Coates and the professor in the wine cellar, the demasking of the murderer to Helen as his supposedly next victim and the great finale.

    If I may quote Professor Albert Warren: “There is no room in the whole world for imperfection!” But “The Spiral Staircase” has not to fear this verdict.

    (Please excuse my poor English)

    Kind regards from Germany!

    • John Greco says:

      Welcome Manuela,

      No need to apologize, your English is very good!

      The director, Robert Siodmak, made some great films, and yes, this is one of his best. Like you, I have loved this film since the first time I saw it. The photography is superb and the suspense, as you say, is unbearable.

      Please visit again!!!!

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