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. 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.