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The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase(1946)

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The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a compact thriller set in turn-of-the-century New England. Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen, a young mute working as a servant in a gothic mansion dominated by dying matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, in an Oscar®-nominated performance). The lumbering residence lies on the outskirts of a small town being terrorized by a serial killer who is preying exclusively on disabled women.

Among the inmates of the mansion are Mrs. Warren's weak but kindly stepson Professor Warren (George Brent), her wastrel son Steven (Gordon Oliver), whose recent return has coincided with the onset of the murders; and the professor's secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who is being romanced by Steven. The staff is rounded out by cook/housekeeper and her husband, Mr and Mrs. Oates (Elsa Lanchester and Rhys Williams). All of the members of the household are solicitous of Helen's safety, believing that her infirmity will make her a natural target for the murderer, and caution her not to venture outside the house. And they have reason to be concerned, because it's clear from very early on that Helen will be the next victim.

While the others worry about the danger outside, Mrs. Warren is convinced that the real danger lies within, and begs Helen to leave the house at once, entreating her physician Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) to remove Helen for her own good: a request with which the doctor, who has more than a passing interest in the young woman, is all too willing to comply. But when Parry's return to retrieve Helen is delayed, and the inhabitants of the household are forced to depart one by one (either by choice or design), Helen is left at the mercy of the killer.

Adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (whose book The Wheel Spins would be the basis for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes), The Spiral Staircase is an expertly crafted thriller, establishing its ominous tone quickly and effortlessly, and maintaining it until the emotionally shattering conclusion. Director Robert Siodmak (Son of Dracula, The Killers) fills the screen with startling images, including the opening murder of a lame girl that focuses on her clutching hands, then cuts to Helen's hands as they clutch at a handkerchief while watching a silent film in the parlor below, visually establishing a link between victim and potential victim. Though the action quickly moves to the claustrophobic confines of the mansion, Siodmak and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca make brilliant use of shadow and light to accentuate the mounting tension: i.e., the deepening darkness in the cellar; the sudden wind that extinguishes a lamp and plunges Helen into darkness as she desperately tries to signal a constable; and the railings of the all-important spiral staircase thrown into relief on the back wall so that the resemble prison bars as Helen's situation becomes more dire.

McGuire gives one of her most affecting performances as Helen. She strikes just the right balance of reticence and frustration, making her infirmity thoroughly believable. Her attempts to speak as the danger escalates are so compelling they touch something primal: the nightmare fear of being confronted with the terrifying and unable to scream. Without dialogue, McGuire has the daunting task of conveying all of Helen's emotions through her eyes, expressions, and movements, and McGuire handles this with an amazing degree of subtlety, never over-playing her hand and betraying the artistry behind the performance. Barrymore provides one of her wiliest turns as the cunning old woman who fears for Helen's safety. Bed-ridden through the film, Barrymore wrings the most out of her dialogue, punctuating it with a flash of her regal eyes and a wry twist to her lips. If the performances of the men in the cast seem more workmanlike in comparison, it's mainly due to being given the thankless task of portraying the suspects who, through the machinations of the plot, are unable to reveal much about themselves.

Sony's new DVD (from their recent acquisition of MGM) is the film's second incarnation in the format, following Anchor Bay's release in 2000 (now out of print). Visually the new transfer represents an improvement over the earlier release, with a sharper image, a deeper black level and more clearly defined shadings. The audio is showing minor deterioration throughout, which does not significantly impact on the viewing experience.

For more information about The Spiral Staircase, visit MGM. To order The Spiral Staircase, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter