Blast From the Past: The Spiral Staircase (1945) Robert Siodmak

TCM is rebroadcasting the nail biting film noir The Spiral Staircase on Thursday at 3:15 PM EST With that in mind, I thought I would highlight my 2010 review of this magnificent film noir.

https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/02/28/the-spiral-staircase-1946-robert-siodmak/

Criss Cross (1949) Robert Siodmak

The film opens with a magnificent opening aerial shot, the camera roaming over the Los Angeles night soon descending on our two doomed protagonists, Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and his former wife, Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo) embracing passionately in a nightclub parking lot.  The sultry Anna promising Steve they will be together, the way it was meant to be. The eyebrows of knowing film noir lovers will be raised, because as you know, in this dark world, a woman’s promise of eternal love to a man is a death trap with no way out. Steve is the prototype film noir sap, head over heels stuck on a dame who is no good, pure evil, only he is too blind to see.  Blinded by love and sex, he is a pawn in a game he does not even know he is playing, while all the dame sees is dollars signs. Men are only there to be used by this kind of woman. Love? Love is a loser’s game. Her motto, as she tells the dumb sap late in the film,  “you have to look out for yourself.” Continue reading

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

Christmas Holiday (1944) Robert Siodmak

Have yourself a very noirish Christmas…

After recently hearing about this film, I was optimistic that I had found a gem for the holiday season, a film noir with a Christmas setting directed by one of the masters of dark cinema, Robert Siodmak. To say the least, it sounded intriguing. When the DVD arrived in the mail, I watched it that same night staying up later than I should considering it was going to be rise and shine at 5AM the following morning.

With the title, “Christmas Holiday” and the two stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin, on the surface this sounds like a festive holiday film along the lines of “White Christmas” or “Holiday Inn.” However, with Robert Siodmak directing you know you are not in for bright fluffy musical extravaganza. The film is more fascinating in spots than a first-class work overall. Sad to say the two leads offer rather flat performances, though Durbin has one shining moment, and the script, by Herman J. Mankiewicz, is presented with an uneven storyline. Deanna Durbin, best known for light musicals, is unconvincing in what was suppose to be her big dramatic breakthrough, and a nervous Universal threw in two songs for her to sing, Frank Losser’s “Spring Will Be Late This Year” and the Irving Berlin classic, “Always” just to cover their bases.

    The film is set on Christmas Eve and day, though you would not know it from the opening scene. It is graduation day for a group of new cadets at West Point. Now consider what was just said, Christmas Eve, December 24th at West Point in upstate New York. It should be cold; freezing, instead the weather and the clothes all are wearing make it seem more like June in Florida. You also have to question the validity of a cadet class graduating on Christmas Eve. I won’t even mention the oddity of there being a Christmas tree in the barracks…oops I just did. I thought this was all a bit sloppy and quickly put me off.  More important is the rest of the opening sequence that introduces secondary character, Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens) to the story. After the ceremony, Mason receives a cruel “Dear John” letter from his fiancé, and decides to catch a plane for San Francisco to try and convince her the breakup is a mistake. Inclement weather, forces his plane to land in New Orleans (an indirect route to say the least, going from West Point, New York to San Francisco but this is 1944 and I have no idea what air travel was like in those days). Anyway, in New Orleans, the young officer meets Jackie Lamont (Durbin) a “hostess” at a sleazy nightclub run by Valerie de Morode (Gladys George). This is arranged by sleaze bucket newspaper reporter, Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf). We find out Jackie Lamont is really Abigail Manette who has had a rough go of it.  She unloads on Mason, and us in flashbacks, her tale of woe.  She first meets Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) at a concert and is quickly charmed by the young handsome man. Quicker than you can say “Gotta dance!” they marry, however it soon becomes apparent there are hidden secrets; a domineering mother-in-law (Gale Sondergaard), and a husband with a gambling addiction who cannot pay off his debts and eventually murders his bookie. Despite mother covering up for her son’s crime, (she burns a pair of his blood stained pants) Manette is caught, put on trial and sent to prison. Blamed by her mother-in-law for not helping Robert enough with his problems, Abigail’s dream marriage has turned into a nightmare of the darkest proportions. Back to the present, we soon learn Robert has escaped from prison and is seeking revenge.

    Based loosely on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the location was switched from Paris to New Orleans. The nightclub where Jackie/Abigail works, a bordello in the novel was turned into a nightclub in the film, though you can easily read between the lines and realize Durbin’s character is working there as a prostitute, and that newspaper reporter Fenimore has a sideline pimping for the Madam, club owner de Morode.

As a film, it is better in parts than as a whole. Director Robert Siodmak does the best possible with an uneven script and to his credit he does gives us one of his most visually startling sequences in the film. This occurs when Lt. Mason and Jackie go from the nightclub/whorehouse she works at directly to this cathedral size house of worship where midnight mass is in progress. Siodmak lingers on the ceremonial proceedings, the music, and the prayers before closing in on our couple in one of the crowded pews. Here we see Jackie breaking down and crying, overcome with the emotional pain and guilt life’s ugly events has bestowed on her. Definitely, Durbin’s one shining moment in the film.

Acting kudos go to Gale Sondergaard’s performance as the over protective mother, Gladys George as the nightclub owner and Richard Whorf as the slimy newspaperman. If you find yourself overdosing on saccharine coated festive fare, you may want to try this dark holiday treat and have yourself a very noirish Christmas.

Cry of the City (1848) Robert Siodmak

    The story of two men from the same neighborhood who go off in different directions in life, one on the right side of the law, and the other on the wrong side of the law.  We have seen this so many times in films such as “Angels with Dirty Faces” with Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan and Pat O’Brien’s Father Jerry Connelly, two Irish kids who grew up together in the slums of New York and took opposite paths in life.  In the 1948 film noir “Cry of the City”, we get the Italian-American version. Marty Roman (Richard Conte) and Candella (Victor Mature) grew up together in New York’s Little Italy. Candella became a cop and Roman a cop killer, a charismatic loser who defies death’s odds.

    Rome escapes from a prison hospital and is pursued by Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and his partner Lt. Collins played wonderfully by Fred Clark. Rome wants to clear his young girlfriend Teena (a young Debra Paget) of any involvement in a jewel robbery of a Mrs. DeGrazia, an elderly woman who was tortured and murdered. Niles (Berry Kroger), a crooked lawyer threatens to implicate Teena in the crime if Rome does not admit to the jewel robbery and murder to clear the lawyer’s innocent client. What difference does it matter anyway, the lawyer Niles says since he is getting the chair for the cop killing and has nothing to lose.

    Teena is in hiding, however, Rome still fears that Niles will still find and implicate her.  After his escape, Rome heads to Niles office where he finds the stolen jewels in secret compartment in the lawyer’s safe. Niles gives Marty the name of his accomplice, Rose Givens, before he pulls a gun and tries to kill Rome. Marty sticks a switchblade knife through the lawyer’s leather chair stabbing him to death.

    Rome meets up with Rose Givens (Hope Emerson) a sadistic masseuse who is willing to trade for the jewelry by giving Rome money and a way out of the city in exchange. The trade will be made at a subway station where Rome has the jewels secured in a locker. Rome notifies Candella where Givens will be for the pickup, his plan was not to be there but Givens wants Rome at the station fearing a setup. As Givens opens the locker, the police close in on her. There’s a struggle. Givens pulls a gun and a wild bullet hits Candella as he was jumping over a turnstile t assist with the arrest. As the police arrest Givens, Rome manages to escapes and meets Teena in a church where he tries to persuade her to run away with him. Candella, still wounded shows up at the church and tells Teena how everyone who has ever helped Marty has been hurt. That he’s left a trail of physically or emotionally wounded souls. Teena decides not to go with him. As Candella and Rome leave the church, Rome tries to escape but Candella shoots him dead.

    The film is loaded with sleazy low life’s from the sadistic masseuse to the creepy abortionist, to Niles, the crooked lawyer. Directed by Robert Siodmak, the film is well paced maintaining a tense dark moody atmosphere. While not quite on par with some of Siodmak’s other noirish works such as “Crossfire” or “The Killers”. “Cry of the City” provides a realistic look at the squalor of the inner city.

   Richard Conte was riding high in his career when this film was made. He had just completed “Call Northside 777″ and also had under his belt “Somewhere in the Night”, “A Bell for Adano” and “A Walk in the Sun.” Conte was a staple in some of the best noir films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “Thieves Highway”, “Whirlpool” and “The Big Combo.” Billed second to Victor Mature in this film Conte not only has the larger part but also steals the show as Marty Roman, a magnetic, woman chasing cop killer.

Victor Mature, an actor of limited talent actually gives a good performance as Candella, the tough yet sensitive cop. The rest of the cast is loaded with many familiar faces including Shelley Winters, as an ex-girlfriend, the previously mentioned Fred Clark, Debra Paget and Hope Emerson who is especially memorable as the sadistic masseuse who almost strangles Rome with ecstatic pleasure.