|The Spiral Staircase (1945)
Run time: Approved | 83 min | Film-Noir, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Mel Dinelli, Ethel Lina White
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore
A mute serving girl in a gloomy, gothic mansion is endangered by a mysterious killer. Great performances by all enhance this breathlessly suspenseful, superbly directed mystery-thriller!
This was an excellent suspense film with outstanding cinematography and interesting characters played by a strong cast.
There are lots of complimentary adjectives in the above sentence but the film deserves it, particularly the photography (see this on DVD). The lighting is as good as anything I’ve ever seen in film noir (this is not a film noir, as one reviewer correctly points out). In fact, outside of David Lean’s "Oliver Twist, " this may be the best-looking black-and-white film I’ve seen. A good part of the visual treat is viewing the fantastic Victorian house where most of the action takes place.
The lead character, played beautifully by Dorothy McGuire, is one the viewer cares about which helps get one involved in the story. All the other characters are fun to watch, and are detailed here in other reviews. I go along with most in saying Ethel Barrymore was the most likable.
There are a few holes in the storyline, to be sure, but one doesn’t care since the film movies rapidly, the story keeps you so involved and the visuals and audio are so interesting. This latter also features the longest thunderstorm on record!
This is one of the most elegantly crafted, paced, photographed and designed of all lady-in-distress thrillers, a sub-genre I am not altogether fond of, but in this case the result is something near to a masterpiece. The actors, especially Dorothy McGuire, are first-rate. I’m particularly in love with the house, a cavernous Victorian, over-decorated, visually and spatially ‘busy’ place, full of odd furniture and fixtures, rugs, lamps and mirrors, it is as much a character as any person in the film. Kudos to the RKO art department, fifty plus years later I salute them. The way the house is explored is a fascinating as the way the characters are presented. Bit by bit we grow accustomed to the place and its denizens, and when the inevitable thunderstorm happens we feel comfortable inside, aware of the menace within we are none the less seduced by the grandness of the place, indeed enveloped by it, as the air of danger becomes almost cozy, and the gothic surroundings become as comforting as they are baleful. This is no small trick; it’s an art. Name a film of the past thirty years that comes close to The Spiral Staircase in its exploration of the various shades of meaning in what for want of a better term one would have to call the Great Gothic Place.
The Spiral Staircase is one of the most eerie and atmospheric films that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. The entire movie gives off a sense of malice throughout, and the use of music here is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a movie. The film’s plot follows a series of murders, of which all the victims are people with imperfections. Our hero is Helen; a young mute girl that works as a nurse for Mrs Warren, an old lady that lives in a big house. Aside from the old lady, also living in the house are her two sons; Albert and Steven, along with a few other people such as the maid. As the murders are being committed on imperfect women, the old lady becomes concerned for her mute nurse and begs her to leave. When another murder is committed in the house, the danger that the young girl is in becomes more apparent.
The first thing you will notice about this hidden gem is it’s striking cinematography and lush settings. The film is very Gothic, and that gives it a very foreboding atmosphere. This is without doubt the best things about the film; in a dark thriller such as this, the atmosphere is always important, and as I said; this film has plenty. The film also features a lot of intrigue. As it has many characters that could be suspects, it leaves you guessing. Playing it’s cards very close to it’s chest, we don’t find out who is the murderer until the very last minute.
The cast of The Spiral Staircase don’t excel individually, but they come together very well as an ensemble. Most of them would never make another notable movie, although the majority have rather large filmographies. Robert Siodmak takes the directors chair, and he should be commended for his work. His use of the camera is excellent; the film features numerous close-ups, and when coupled with the haunting music; it makes for a great eeriness. There is one sequence in particular where the killer is watching his would-be victim from some bushes in the rain, and that with the haunting music in the background is altogether one of the most frightening sequences ever filmed. Cinematic perfection.
The extra vulnerability of the handicapped has been a magnet to attract some fine directors of suspense
The fulcrum of Robert Siodmak’s ‘The Spiral Staircase’ was the fact that the beautiful and expressive Dorothy McGuire was dumb deprived of her speech by shock Her terror when death stalked had to be wordless, and it was all the more potent She could not communicate, she could not plead or call for help
It was New England in 1906, and she was employed by the bedridden mistress (Ethel Barrymore) of an old mansion (decorated in Victorian style). On the girl’s day off, a disabled girl was found murdered in the little town. It was the third such murder In each case the victim had been physically handicapped and, as we learned later, the murderer killed because he could not tolerate imperfection
There was a chilling start to the suspense as Dorothy McGuire walked home through a stormy night, rattling a twig against railings In a lightning flash we saw but she did not the silhouette of a man watching her On into the house and, as she paused on a landing, we saw the feet of the man on another landing waiting. And then, in a close-up of his eye, we saw her face reflected an imperfect face
On this level the tension was maintained in visual terms, through the murder of another girl in the house and the mute’s discovery of the body, and her belief that she knows the murderer She tricks him into a room and locks him in but, as she is to find, she has locked up the wrong man
Ethel Barrymore received the film’s only Academy Award nomination, as Best Supporting Actress McGuire would have to wait another year to be nominated as Best Actress, for her great role in Elia Kazan’s emotional ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’, 1947.