The Spiral Staircase (1945) Robert Siodmak

Spiral Staircase-17

The opening scenes of The Spiral Staircase, where we first meet Helen (Dorothy McGuire), take place in a hotel ballroom that has been set up as a make shift movie theater. There’s a hand written sign that states there are two showings, 4:30 and 7:30. Then we see 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 flickering images of this infant art. It is a great scene that gives film lovers a glimpse at what it was like when the movies were young.

spiral Staircase-09While 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 buried within, 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 Alfred 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 a circular 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 filled with scenes of drenching rain, 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.

spiral staircase dorothy and ethelWhen 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. We have the womanizing Steven who is having a fling with his brother’s secretary Blanche. There 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.

Spiral-Staircase-001The 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.  Ethel Barrymore, once again playing an older woman, was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the belligerent bed-ridden matriarch of the Warren family. The previous year Barrymore won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in None But the Lonely Heart. 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.

This film is my contribution to The Barrymore Blogathon. Check out other excellent entries at the link below.

https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/the-barrymore-trilogy-blogathon-has-now-arrived-2/

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19 comments on “The Spiral Staircase (1945) Robert Siodmak

  1. “Who the killer is becomes fairly obvious but this does not distract from the fun.” So true. “The Spiral Staircase” is a film I save for October viewing when the wind is blowing and terror is in the air. Whoa. I just scared myself.

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  2. Love this film! Great review, John. This is how I always thought of Ethel until I learned that she was quite a lovely and sparkly thing as a young woman,

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  3. The Lady Eve says:

    I haven’t seen The Spiral Staircase for years and I’m guessing this is because it gives me the willies (exactly what it was intended to do, of course). As always seems to happen, your review makes me want to revisit a film I haven’t seen for quite a while. Nice work, John!

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  4. Le says:

    As I wrote in the other post about The Spiral Staircase, this is one that called my attention! I added it to my watchlist, considering it has a Hitchcock touch and also inspired Sorry, Wrong Number. Great post, with a beautiful, well-written introduction.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!
    Le

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  5. Sam Juliano says:

    One of my favorites in this genre, John. You frame this beautifully! Love that lead-in! Some great supporting performances and atmospherics.

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  6. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I’ve only just got around to reading the entries now, and I must say that this was highly worth the wait. “The Spiral Staircase” is my favorite film of all time, and you done the film justice with your entry. I have written about it twice before, but it wasnt anywhere near as good.

    Now that the Barrymore blogathon has finished, I’ve just announced a new blogathon that you might be interested in participating in. The link is below with more details about it

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/in-the-good-old-days-of-classic-hollywood-presents-the-lauren-bacall-blogathon/

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    • John Greco says:

      Crystal, glad to have participated! I have slowly been trying to make the rounds myself. I just signed up on your post to write about HARPER.

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  7. girlsdofilm says:

    Anything Hitch-influenced is intriguing to me so I look forward to checking this one out! Of all the Barrymore’s, Ethel is the one whose work I’m least familiar with. She’s an actress I’ve never really ‘got’ – I’m not sure why! I look forward to rectifying that with this film.

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  8. Judy says:

    Ethel was really on a roll at this time, with her great turn in this one following on from her part in ‘None But the Lonely Heart’, which I love too. Definitely agree that this is wonderfully atmospheric and deserves the Hitchcock comparison!

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy, I have not seen “None But the Lonely Heart” but your recommendation is enough for me to take a look at it. Thanks! Hope all is well.

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  9. Hey, John-
    On your recommendation, I saw this film last night. I found a copy on youtube, it was fantastic! Thanks
    Ciao!
    Summer

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  10. John Greco says:

    Summer, great, I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for letting me know.

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