Spiral Staircase, The (1945)

“Even with her eyes shut, she seems to be watching you like an evil spirit.”

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Synopsis:
On a dark and stormy night, a mute housemaid (Dorothy McGuire) caring for an infirm woman (Ethel Barrymore) in a country mansion fears for her life after several local girls with disabilities are murdered. Meanwhile, a kind doctor (Kent Smith) believes he can cure McGuire of her trauma-induced muteness, while Barrymore’s son (Gordon Oliver) romances the household’s beautiful secretary (Rhonda Fleming), and Oliver’s stepbrother (George Brent) manages the rest of the staff — including a tippling maid (Elsa Lanchester), a stern nurse (Sara Allgood), and a manservant (Rhys Williams).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while it’s “not hard to figure out the mystery” of this “classic gothic thriller”, director “Robert Siodmak’s atmospheric direction keeps viewers anxious”, and there are “some particularly eerie close-ups of the murderer’s eye before he attacks his victims”. Indeed, the primary star of the show is DP Nicholas Musuraca (best known for his work with Val Lewton), whose stunning cinematography turns multiple frames into gorgeous chiaroscuro paintings. The most memorable aspect of the screenplay (based on Ethel Lina White‘s novel Some Must Watch) is that the protagonist can’t (won’t) speak, even to save her own life; to that end, this would make an interesting double-bill with Wait Until Dark (1967), also about an imperiled woman whose disability heightens her vulnerability to a predator.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nicholas Musuraca’s highly atmospheric cinematography
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Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

2 Responses to “Spiral Staircase, The (1945)”

  1. Just rewatched this – and it’s definitely must-see. I’m a little surprised by what seems a dismissive assessment.

    Siodmak is a master of the gothic – and this is, more than anything else, an exercise in grand gothic style, practically scene by scene.

    At 80 minutes, it does not overstay its welcome, and it’s very smart that the film runs along economic lines. The pressure-cooker script (which is a lot more clever in its construction than one might think, at first) is set up as ‘the night of inevitability, when things will come to a head’. So there’s no room for chaff here; everything is kept to the minimum of what happens just before ‘the final crack’.

    There’s a very bold, psycho-sexual statement here about ‘the strong vs. the weak’, and it’s peppered throughout the dialogue (i.e., “Men like to see women cry. It makes them feel superior.”). But the statement is even more generally hierarchical than something sexual. It’s rooted in simple ego – and the film is an indictment against those who stupidly feel they are (or aspire to be) ‘better’ than others.

    I like this cast a lot – all solid actors. The only slightly weak link is Brent – though not through all of the picture; he does acquit himself somewhat when the meat of the film forces him to step up to the plate. Brent was never particularly known for having range as an actor and a good deal of his performances are inter-changeable. But all is not lost with him here.

    McGuire and Barrymore, in particular, are terrific, and even Fleming handles herself nicely.

    I just love the whole mood of this film. (It seems an influence on both ‘Psycho’ and ‘Rear Window’.) It moves quite well, with sharp pacing and nuance, and builds to a heart-stopping conclusion.

  2. I’ll admit I was disappointed by this flick, which I hadn’t seen before. It’s absolutely atmospheric, from beginning to end — but the story didn’t grip me. Who knows.

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