I enjoy suspense movies and not the slash and gore films that seem so popular with the younger generations. I like a suspense film that doesn’t show all of the violence or the evildoer immediately, but simply hints at the fact that something bad is going to happen or is happening. Of course, the suspense films I like also have a good triumphs over evil ending and the main character, who has been in danger, will now be safe.
The Spiral Staircase is my kind of suspense film. In the beginning of the film, the audience is swept into a local hotel that also shows silent films. It is in this audience that we meet heroine Helen(Dorothy McGuire) who is thoroughly caught up in the plot of the silent movie that she is watching. ( The silent film shown is D.W. Griffith’s The Sands of the Dee.) As the movie plays for the audience, we are taken upstairs where a young woman is looking out her window. She then walks to her closet and we notice that she has a noticable limp. She takes a dress out of her closet and what we see, but she doesn’t see, is that a man is hiding in her closet! The camera zooms in on just his eye and we see his pov, watching the young woman dress. With her arms over her head and the dress about her, the camera again zooms in on her hands as they clutch the air and show signs that the young woman has been grabbed. We hear her groans, and then the scene cuts to the hotel’s movie audience. They are happily getting their coats and hats and preparing to leave when above their heads they hear a loud thud and the sound of breaking glass. The hotel owner rushes upstairs and with the help of another hotel guest(character actress Ellen Corby, aka Grandma Walton from the 1970s tv show, The Walton’s) he goes to the young woman’s room and finds her strangled to death.
Something evil has recently begun in this quiet, small New England town near Boston. We learn that two young women have been murdered for no apparent reason other than the fact that they both had a physical defect. One of the victims had a facial scar and the other was described as “simple-minded”. Now we see that the third victim was crippled in her leg. Soon we learn that Helen, a maid at wealthy Mrs. Warren’s (Ethel Barrymore) home, is a mute. That can only mean one thing, Helen’s life is in danger!
We don’t know a lot about Helen’s previous life. We do know that she used to be able to speak but when coming home from school one day as a youngster, she discovered that her home was on fire and her parents died in the fire, the local firefighters unable to save them. This horrific event has caused Helen to not be able to speak. Who she stayed with until she reached adulthood we don’t know and we also don’t know how she came to be in Mrs. Warren’s employ. We do learn that she is in love with kind Dr. Parry(Kent Smith), the young, handsome, new doctor in town and he also loves Helen. He wants her to go to Boston and be evaluated by a team of doctors who, he believes, will be able to help Helen get her voice back. There is a scene in the film where Helen daydreams about dancing with Dr. Parry and then she is at the altar to marry him and it breaks her heart that she can’t utter the words, “I do” during the wedding ceremony, with all eyes upon her.
Since we, the audience, know the killer is a man, the movie’s script cleverly introduces 4 male characters who could possibly be the killer. There is Professor Albert Warren(George Brent), his younger brother Steve(Gordon Oliver), Mr. Oates(Rhys Williams), and even Dr. Parry.
Professor Warren seems very preoccupied, dislikes his younger brother, Steve, immensely, and keeps intruding whenever his brother is trying to grab and kiss the Professor’s secretary, the very beautiful Blanche(Rhonda Fleming.) Turns out Blanche and the Professor also had a past relationship so it really sticks in his craw to see his former girlfriend in the arms of his younger brother!
Mr. Oates, the caretaker of the Warren mansion and grounds, is seen entering the house in a dark raincoat and hat, which we saw the killer wearing earlier when he was stalking Helen on her way home to the mansion from the hotel.
Steven seems to be a lazy, layabout, with no job. He’s just returned from a tour of Europe with nothing but time on his hands when he decides to embark on getting closer to Blanche. Later in the film, he cruelly scoffs at Dr. Parry’s suggestion that doctors in Boston could help Helen speak. Why does the thought of a person with a disability getting help make him so angry?
Even Dr. Parry, so kind to Helen, is he really who he seems to be or could he be hiding an evil side, ala Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
The women in the film are also just as interesting as the men. Mrs. Warren, cold to her two stepsons, reveals that their father thought them both weaklings and wastrels. She is insistent to Helen that she must get out of the house that night, that something bad will happen to Helen if she doesn’t get away. She is also a concealed carry believer!(This performance earned Barrymore a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.) Mrs. Oates(Elsa Lanchester) is the cook with a penchant for sneaking a drink. Her husband’s scoldings about her habit she ignores and unfortunately, that “little nip” while washing up the supper dishes will prove to be unhelpful to Helen later that night! Then there is Blanche, the dutiful secretary, drawn to bad boy Steven, and a search in the basement for her suitcase will prove to be a deadly decision on her part! Of course, hats are off to Dorothy McGuire’s portrayal of Helen. She has to emote and convey so much with no words being uttered. A truly remarkable performance.
The Spiral Staircase does an excellent job of showing the twists and turns of very complicated people and it leaves one guessing as to who the killer is until the last 10 minutes or so of the movie. I also enjoyed the photography shot by Nicholas Musuraca. Lots of lights and darks, shadows where a killer could be lurking in the old mansion, and a large mirror on the first landing of the grand staircase is used for quite a few interesting shots and views. If I ever had a basement, it wouldn’t be as dark and dank and creepy as the one in this movie, I can tell you!!
One can find The Spiral Staircase at Amazon.com, but I warn you, it’s really pricey. I was shocked at how high it’s price is! It’s not available at TCM’s shop, only a remake which was done in 1975 starring Christopher Plummer, Jacqueline Bisset, and Sam Wannamaker. It is available on Youtube, however, in its entirety. A Spanish or Portugese(sorry, I cannot tell the difference between the two languages) fan of the film put it on Youtube, with subtitles for the Spanish or Portugese viewers.
The Spiral Staircase was made in 1946 by RKO Studios, produced by Dory Schary and directed by Robert Siodmak. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli, adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White. I also discovered that the killer’s eye seen in the woman’s closet at the film’s beginning belonged to the director, Siodmak!