The Spiral Staircase
US (1945) Dir. Robert Siodmak
The old dark house, the rainy night, a serial killer on the loose, all elements of a clichéd horror film but sometimes all it needs is a deft touch to create something based on such a simple concept that rises above the rest.
Set at the turn of the last century in a small New England village, a serial killer strikes but his victims are all young women with disabilities. Mute live-in maid Helen (Dorothy McGuire) who works for the Warren household, is feared to be a prospective next victim, every member of the family and the staff do their best to protect her but the killer may be closer than they think.
Yup, it’s familiar territory now but when the original novel this is based on, Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, came out in 1933 it wasn’t such an overplayed concept. With a few tweaks by screenwriter Mel Dinelli – shifting the time back some twenty years and the location from England to New England, USA – and with the German impressionist influenced director Robert Siodmark (brother of legendary screenwriter Curt) at the helm, The Spiral Staircase is one of those dark, twisting psychological thrillers which has people wondering “Why didn’t Hitchcock make this film?”.
As it happens, White’s later novel The Wheel Spins formed the basis for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes so this particular perfect fit became a reality anyway but back to what many consider to be Siodmark’s finest hour and twenty minutes. The first murder occurs less than three minutes in but due to the strict Hays Code it isn’t explicit, yet this isn’t a problem as what we see is enough; the wild staring eye peeping out from behind the hanging clothes in the oblivious victim’s closet (purportedly that of Siodmark himself) is a sufficiently chilling prelude .
This recurring motif is just one of nice little touches which Siodmark employs to send a few effective chills down our spines. The rainy night is a corny plot device but lightning and thunder add plenty to the exponentially growing suspense, which picks up pace to a nice twisting crescendo in the final five minutes. Before that we are introduced to the cast, many of whom are chief suspects for the serial killer, who come and go from the hallowed premises of Warren House.
Earning herself an Oscar nomination is the legendary Ethel Barrymore as the sickly Warren matriarch, who is bed ridden for the film’s entirety and on a few occasions slips closer to the great dark house in the sky. While Mrs. Warren is kind to Helen, she is less charitable to fussy battleaxe Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), an appropriate name for her brusque bedside manner. Helen also has the support of brandy loving housekeeper Mrs. Oates (a fun turn from Elsa Lanchester) and her jovial husband (Rhys Williams).
Meanwhile Professor Warren (George Brent) runs his business with his assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who happens to be enjoying a dalliance with the youngest Warren, the habitual womanising stepson Stephen (Gordon Oliver). Adding to the testosterone count is new physician in town Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), a kindly chap who takes a shine to Helen, and at the behest of Mrs. Warren, offers to take Helen away to help get treatment to regain her voice.
All the elements of a great whodunit, if, of course the killer is in the house. Mrs. Oates is repeatedly confronted by an open window she swears blind she shut, deceitfully blaming the family bulldog. And with many people coming and going on this stormy night the list of suspects is quite healthy. But if Helen is the intended victim then no-one else need by worried correct? Well, not quite.
Siodmark has clearly studied Hitchcock for the art of misdirection as well as German expressionist films for the chiaroscuro which he incorporates in liberal and hugely effective doses. With candles still very much a necessity at the time of the film’s setting allows this use of shadows is an essential part of the creepy aesthetic, which in turn was borrowed by every film noir that came in its wake. And it plays in perfectly with a later murder, performing the dual service of appeasing the censors and leaving it to the imagination of the viewer the cruel fate that befall the victim.
In the tradition of great psychodramas one has to be aware of the various clues littered through the film, perhaps not to lead us to the identity of the killer but to lay the foundation for the developments later on. Siodmark is also not above teasing us with little jumps here and there to lull the audience into a false sense of security but does so in such an innocuous manner their true value is disarming us for the real horrors that occur later on.
Very much a product of its time it is perhaps a little hammy in places, but one quickly acclimatise to it thanks to the brisk pacing and whole hearted committed performances of the cast. The great Ethel Barrymore may have been the only one to earn Oscar recognition – and she was wonderful here – but this is really Dorothy McGuire’s film. With a face of natural purity and a presence that exudes total chasteness, McGuire convincingly communicates with the simplest of looks every emotion from contentment to fear and horror in this dialogue free role.
Amazingly a lot of ground is covered in the film’s meagre run time which benefits the short, sharp shock effect of its simple but multi layered premise. The Spiral Staircase is one of those films which offer something of interest to both film buffs and filmmakers alike (although the egregious error of the scratchy silent film footage which would have looked clean during the period setting will create a few groans) and deserves to be resurrected for a re-evaluation by modern audiences.