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.
“Slightly Scarlet” is one of a few color noirs from the 1950’s (Niagara, Leave Her to Heaven and A Kiss Before Dying to name a few others). A flamboyant Technicolor crime film loosely based on James M. Cain‘s novel, “Love’s Lovely Counterfeit,” the film stars bow-tied John Payne, and two succulent looking redheads, Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming. Publicist Ben Grace (Payne) is a stooge for the local underworld kingpin Solly Casper (Ted de Corsia). With an election coming up, Casper wants Grace to dig up some dirt on the anti-crime fighting mayoral candidate Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). It turns out the weak link in Jansen’s armor is his beautiful secretary June’s (Rhonda Fleming) ex-con sister Dorothy (Arlene Dahl) who has just been released from prison. Dorothy is beautiful, sexually promiscuous and a kleptomaniac. Ben however falls for June and double-crosses his boss. Casper decides to go after the crime fighting newspaper publisher Norman Marlowe instead, killing him. With pressure mounting from the police, Casper leaves town and Ben, a guy who seems to work both sides of the law, steps in to take over the rackets. He also ends up in the middle of a sexual fantasy with the two sisters hungering for him. It all comes crashing down in a dramatic conclusion when Casper returns to town with a vengeance coming after Ben as he previously promised.
Shot in lavish widescreen Technicolor, evocative of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the same period (Written on the Wind), the visuals though drenched in rich color are filled with dark shadows and actors with half-lit faces suggestive of the bleak black and white atmosphere relished in classic noir settings. This is all attributable to cinematographer John Alton who remarkably shot this lush color film as if he were using black and white film stock. Alton, a veteran of B noir classics like “Raw Deal”, “T-Men”, “Border Incident”, all directed by Anthony Mann, and “The Big Combo” was one of the most original and flamboyant DP’s working during this period.
Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl create their own style of heat, as the good sister (June) and bad sister (Dorothy), though one has to wonder how does June, a secretary afford a luxurious home and a maid too. Is she providing more than secretarial services to her rich boss Jansen? Both women are dressed in the tightest clothes imaginable accentuating their assets to the fullest degree allowable by cinematic law. Dahl has the showier role as the kleptomaniac and seductive younger needy sister. She is at times a combination of frightened, vulnerable, flirtatious and deceitful. Fleming is continually trying to protect her sister and her own desires, which seem to bounce back and forth between Ben and the kind-hearted Jansen. With their flaming red hair, the two ladies are convincingly believable as sisters. John Payne, as Ben Grace has the most ambiguous role in the film. His character seems to be all over the map, nice guy, criminal, double crosser. You never know for sure what he is going to do. Payne was in the middle of a second phase in his career. His first began in the 1940’s when he made a series of musicals (Tin Pan Alley, Hello, Frisco Hello) for 20th Century Fox. Later on, he re-energized and changed his image with a series of crime films (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential) and westerns (Silver Lode, Santa Fe Passage). “Slightly Scarlet” also has one of the great character actors of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Ted de Corsia as mob leader Solly Casper (what a great name!). Brooklyn born De Corsia will be familiar to many for his roles in such films as “The Lady From Shanghai”, “The Big Combo”, “Naked City”, “The Enforcer” and “The Killing” (he is the cop who needs to pay off his wife’s medical bills).
Director Allan Dwan was seventy years old when he made this work and he would go on to make five more films before retiring in 1961. His first film was way back in 1911! In between, he made more than 400 films. The eternally constipated New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther once again proved his faulty judgment by trashing this film, calling Dahl’s performance laughable and the film “an exhausting lot of twaddle.” While the film is not in the same class as Cain’s previously adapted to the screen works such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “Double Indemnity”, this is an entertaining, if not quite a classic piece of work.