Sunday 28 June 2020

Movie Review: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

A woman-under-threat suspense thriller, The Spiral Staircase boasts impressive visuals and a gloomy milieu.

It's 1906, and a serial killer is terrorizing a small rural New England town. All the victims are women with physical disabilities. Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is mute, and is attending a movie when the killer strikes again, murdering a woman with a limp. With a thunder-and-lightning storm erupting and nighttime approaching, Helen feels threatened that she could be the next victim. The kindly Doctor Parry (Kent Smith) helps her scramble home to the mansion of the bedridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), where Helen is a housekeeper. 

The staff members include the groundskeeper-and-cook couple Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester) and Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood). Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) is the man of the house, and his stepbrother Steven (Gordon Oliver) is in town for a visit. Steven is romancing Albert's secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who also lives at the Warren estate. A constable arrives to warn Albert that the killer is in the area, setting up Helen for a long and terrifying night.

A seminal chapter in the suspense-bordering-on-horror genre, The Spiral Staircase helped define the language of violent slasher whodunnits. By 1946 standards the scenes of murder are disturbing if not shocking, director Robert Siodmak somehow getting away with showing flailing limbs as life seeps out of victims.

Other stylistic punctuation marks provide further jolts. A close-up focus on the killer's eye transitions to point-of-view shots, and in one case the killer sees a victim's disability in a clever bit of superimposed mind-of-the-murderer terror. Siodmak makes excellent use of deep shadows and candlelight to heighten the drama in the spooky Warren mansion, the wine cellar - at the bottom of the titular spiral staircase - providing many opportunities for misadventures in the dark. And the thunder, lightning and pouring rain emphasize the siege mentality.

The Mel Dinelli script establishes the killer-is-in-the-house premise early, with Mrs. Warren urging Helen at the start of the evening to pack up and leave, because only bad things can happen if she stays at the estate. The Spiral Staircase then unfolds with some theatrical constraints, all the scenes confined to a few rooms and the pool of candidate murderers limited to the sparse members of the cast.

But a couple of performances rise above the limitations of the material. Dorothy McGuire as the mute Helen builds enormous empathy, conveying emotion without over-acting as Helen struggles against both her affliction and the threat of an unknown murderer. And Ethel Barrymore takes over gargoyle duties as the elderly matron confined to her bed, drifting in and out of consciousness and yet seemingly aware of everything that has happened and is about to happen. Her frequent forebodings add a surreal current of dread.

In a compact 84 minutes and over just one night, The Spiral Staircase packs in psychological trauma, multiple murders, inter-family conflict and a touch of romance, and helps construct the twisty foundations for many thrillers to come.

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