SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE (director: Robert Siodmak; screenwriters: Mel Dinelli/from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White; cinematographer: Nick Musuraca; editors: Harry Gerstad/Harry Marker; music: Roy Webb; cast: Dorothy McGuire (Helen), George Brent (Prof. Warren), Gordon Oliver (Steve Warren), Kent Smith (Dr. Parry), Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Warren), Rhonda Fleming (Blanche), James Bell (Constable), Sara Allgood (Nurse Barker), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Emma Oates), Rhys Williams (Mr. Oates), Erville Alderson (Dr. Harvey), Myrna Dell (Crippled Murder Victim); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Dore Schary; RKO; 1946-UK)
“The radiant heroine performance by Dorothy McGuire as a terrified mute, who conveys her inner thoughts without dialogue, was priceless.”
Robert Siodmak directs a perfectly eerie stylish thriller ala Hitchcock, which even the master of suspense would be envious of, that is based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White. It’s set in a big old creepy New England Victorian house at the turn of the last century, where there’s a local serial killer on the loose murdering only young women with physical afflictions. It is later learned the insane killer wants to rid the world of imperfections, giving the story a dose of some popular at the time Freudian psychology to throw against the wall.
Siodmak loads up on the ‘old dark house’ crime film genre clichés as there’s rumbles of thunder, a stormy nighttime setting, shadowy rooms traversed by a flickering candle, creaking doors, banging shutters from the wind, windows mysteriously opened, and a capacious isolated country house filled with ominous sounds.
The brilliant opening scene of the actual murder of a crippled girl who can’t yell for help in her hotel room while guests are ironically watching a silent movie on the floor below, is shot in the German expressionist style the director was noted for and sets the suspenseful mood the film maintains throughout. The film’s only fault is the miraculously happy ending, which seemed too pat.
The killer is never seen, only his eyes and his hands when he discretely strangles his victims. It’s interesting to note that the eyes and hands used were of Siodmak and not of the actual killer. When the young lady in the hotel is murdered, the killer is hiding in an open closet by a rack of dresses and watching her undress before he strikes–only his wide-open eyes are seen peering out from the dresses.
The film quickly establishes that in this provincial small town it takes outsiders a long time to be accepted, as the old-time doctor warns ambitious bachelor newcomer Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) not to steal his patients. Parry has a crush on the beautiful young domestic, Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who is mute and works outside of town in the Victorian house of a bed-ridden critically ailing wealthy widow, Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Afraid for her safety, Parry gives her a ride in his horse carriage back to the Warren’s place and also tells her there’s a Boston doctor that may be able to cure her. He makes plans to take her there tomorrow as he’s not only attracted to her and impressed with her sweetness and good character, but identifies with her as an outsider. But the busy doctor can’t take her all the way, as he receives an emergency call. Walking home in the woods she’s frightened by animal sounds, but arrives safely at the mansion’s gates when unseen to her in the dusk are the same eyes that killed earlier before spying on her from behind the bushes.
Soon the constable (James Bell) comes to the Warren house to warn that the the killer was tracked in the vicinity. Biology Professor Warren (Gearge Brent) and his, just returning from Paris, dissolute younger step-brother Steve (Gordon Oliver), are told by the constable to be careful and watch out for Helen. The other house members are Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), who is treated with contempt by the crabby Mrs. Warren and kept stationed outside of her room. She only allows her favorite Helen to give her the medicines, and while being treated warns Helen that the killer is someone in the house and that she should leave with Dr. Parry at once. The other residents are the household servant couple, the cook Emma (Elsa Lanchester) and her caretaker hubby Mr. Oates (Rhys Williams).
The murderer is narrowed down between the two bitter rival step-brothers.
It’s learned that the professor was taking care of Steven’s mother while the womanizer real son traveled the world, as it is further learned that their late hunter father thought little of both–calling them weaklings because they didn’t know how to use a gun. Family problems are uncovered that show many clouds hanging over them, and there’s also the current problem of the beautiful live-in secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who was once the reliable professor’s gal but now is linked with the wolfish Steven.
In this creepy setting, the killer comes after the defenseless Helen as the others in the house get occupied one way or another and she’s left alone. Even Dr. Parry can’t return as promised to take her away, as he keeps going on emergency calls.
The talented cast is superb, knowing how to get the most suspense and shocks from such a creaky thriller. But the radiant heroine performance by Dorothy McGuire as a terrified mute, who conveys her inner thoughts without dialogue, was priceless. Siodmak created a near-masterpiece, an elegant film that can be enjoyed as one of the better “lady in distress” thrillers. There was an awful remake in 1975 starring Jacqueline Bisset, which convincingly showsthat Siodmak and the cast can’t be praised enough for their artistic accomplishment.
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
REVIEWED ON 1/19/2004 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ