One of the grand old dark house thrillers from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase holds up very well after decades in which films and filmmakers have begged, borrowed, and stolen from its story, its direction, and its production.
The Production: 4.5/5
One of the grand old dark house thrillers from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase holds up very well after decades in which films and filmmakers have begged, borrowed, and stolen from its story, its direction, and its production. Kino Lorber’s newly remastered high definition transfer beautifully displays the film’s wonderfully sinister mansion with a houseful of potential killers, one of whom is hiding in the shadows ready to strike at any moment.
After the third young girl in town with a physical infirmity succumbs to a horrific strangling by an unknown attacker, wealthy, invalid matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) begins to fear for the safety of her beautiful yet mute-from-childhood companion Helen (Dorothy McGuire). Encouraged to leave the mansion by both a young local doctor (Kent Smith) who’s trying to get to the physiological basis for her silence and Mrs. Warren’s stepson Professor Warren (George Brent) who promises to keep an eye on Helen until the doctor can return to take her away, Helen and the rest of the household is unaware that an open window has seemingly allowed the murderer to enter the home undetected, waiting in the shadows for a chance to strike again.
Based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, the screenplay by Mel Dinelli provides a slate of intriguing character types to populate the film’s surroundings letting us in on just enough clues to suspect many of them of being the murderer. Director Robert Siodmak obliges our suspicions by showing us a muddy-shoed, slicker-wearing silhouette following the helpless, unaware Helen and then later showing us several characters wearing rain slickers or carrying muddy shoes that keep our suspicions at the forefront. He also takes us inside the killer’s mind’s eye a couple of times to observe his prey and cleverly but subtly manages to eventually put Helen in jeopardy by systematically eliminating in one way or another any of the other members of the household who might help her as she gradually begins to understand that the killer is in the house. Siodmak’s camera smoothly glides down the film’s title staircase taking us to a creepy basement awash in threatening shadows and potential malevolence, and with sphinxlike Mrs. Warren growing more agitated for Helen’s safety with each passing moment, it’s clear she knows more than she’s telling as time begins to run out for several members of the household. At only 83-minutes, the movie’s pace is wonderfully sustained, and once the killer’s identity is made clear, Helen’s ultimate safety becomes terrifyingly uncertain.
It’s a superb opportunity for Dorothy McGuire to act with only her face and her body, and she comes through with a memorable portrayal (surprisingly not Oscar-nominated though clearly deserving) that’s gripping and completely sympathetic. George Brent and Kent Smith offer stalwart support as two men interested in Helen’s welfare while Gordon Oliver as a ne’er-do-well half-brother Steven sets himself up fairly early as the chief suspect for the crimes. Wonderful character actors like Elsa Lanchester as the housemaid and Rhys Williams as her husband the house caretaker enhance the eccentric nature of the mansion’s staff. The young Rhonda Fleming has some memorable moments as Warren’s secretary while Sara Allgood has an entertainingly combative relationship with Ethel Barrymore as dedicated nurse and stubbornly uncooperative patient. Barrymore’s performance was Oscar nominated playing much of her role stationary in bed with only her eyes and voice to beautifully establish and maintain the menacing mood of the piece.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully reproduced in this beautiful 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Blacks are quite rich and deep and wonderfully atmospheric amid the superb sharpness and nicely sustained grayscale of the remastering. While most of the image is clear and clean, there is an occasional flurry of what appears to be treated damage flecks, but they pass by quite quickly. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers surprisingly robust sound for the era. The excellently recorded dialogue track has been combined with Roy Webb’s appropriately atmospheric score and the ominous sound effects (lots of thunder, lightning, and rain which fortify the film’s ever-tightening suspense) to create a very effective sound experience. All age-related artifacts like hiss, flutter, crackle, and hum have been eliminated.
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentary: an excellent one is provided by film historian Imogen Sara Smith who analyzes the production beautifully, provides background on the actors and key members of the production crew, and compares it to other films with similar mood and themes.
Screen Director’s Playhouse (30:03): 1945 radio adaptation of the movie featuring star Dorothy McGuire.
The Spiral Staircase Theatrical Trailer (2:00, SD)
Kino Release Trailers: Cry of the City, I Wake Up Screaming, Deadline U.S.A., Daisy Kenyon.
For those who love the more restrained and less graphic thrillers of the 1940s, The Spiral Staircase should be right up your alley. A film Alfred Hitchcock could easily have directed during this period (in between Spellbound and Notorious, for instance), The Spiral Staircase can stand tall with any of its then-contemporaries and comes highly recommended.