The Spiral Staircase (1946) Blu-ray Review

Splendid classic old dark house thriller 4.5 Stars

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 Spiral Staircase (1946)
Released: 31 May 1946
Rated: APPROVED
Runtime: 83 min
Director: Robert Siodmak
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Cast: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith
Writer(s): Mel Dinelli (screenplay), Ethel Lina White (novel)
Plot: In 1916, a shadowy serial killer is targeting women with "afflictions"; one night during a thunderstorm, the mute Helen feels menaced.
IMDB rating: 7.5
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Kino
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 23 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD25 (single layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 10/01/2018
MSRP: $24.95

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.

Video: 4.5/5

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.

Audio: 5/5

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.

Overall: 4.5/5

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.

Published by

Matt Hough

editor,member

31 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Matt! This has long been one of my favorites from the forties as well. I just received this today, as I made the plunge when the price went below $21 on amazon. I’ve only sampled the disc thus far, but what I’ve seen goes way beyond my expectations. Very rich and deep blacks, with a marvelous grey scale and contrast. It’s not perfectly pristine, but except for some stray tiny flecks which are hardly noticeable, the image is extremely clean and very dynamic. Those inky blacks makes one feel you could walk right into the screen. Also, because the image is so clean and the detail is fairly accurate, one is able to notice not only the large scale dynamics of Nicholas Musuraca’s use of deep shadows that climb the walls and become almost characters in the film themselves due to placing the lighting on the floor, but one can also see more subtle details, for instance the varied uses of different kind of scrims over lighting sources to illuminate Dorothy McGuire’s face, that are not only beautiful in themselves, but also help to reveal her emotional state by changing the kind of filters and source of illumination used as the film progresses.

  2. I usually wait for Kino titles to drop in price, but I grabbed this last week at around $20, received it Saturday afternoon, and watched it Saturday night — it is one of the best purchases I’ve made, worth every penny, a really great (and somewhat overlooked) film and it made for a wonderfully enjoyable October Saturday night. Dorothy McGuire is really marvelous.

  3. Now that we have this fine looking Blu-ray with a terrific audio commentary, I'm sure I'll choose this 1940s black and white suspense movie to revisit as often as I do The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet, Notorious, and Out of the Past. If I had Blu-rays of Sorry, Wrong Number, The Lady in the Lake, and a few others, life would be close to perfection.

  4. Matt Hough

    Now that we have this fine looking Blu-ray with a terrific audio commentary, I'm sure I'll choose this 1940s black and white suspense movie to revisit as often as I do The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet, Notorious, and Out of the Past. If I had Blu-rays of Sorry, Wrong Number, The Lady in the Lake, and a few others, life would be close to perfection.

    I agree with you there. I've been tempted to buy Sorry, Wrong Number on iTunes, but that HD pricing hasn't reached my purchasing threshold yet. I try to watch my DVD of "The Lady in the Lake" every Christmas season. That's fight, a film noir is a Christmas time movie for me.

  5. Robin9

    Why don't you watch Christmas Holiday then? That very stylish film ticks both boxes.

    I've heard about that film, but never seen it. It's never been released in our Region on disc. That would make quite a Christmas/Film Noir double feature.

  6. Matt Hough

    There are some excerpts from Christmas Holiday on YouTube, but I think there is some kind of rights problem with the movie. I have a lot of Deanna Durbin films on tape and disc but not this one.

    That's unfortunate as I really would like to see this film.

  7. Robert Crawford

    I've heard about that film, but never seen it. It's never been released in our Region on disc. That would make quite a Christmas/Film Noir double feature.

    I was very disappointed when Kino said they had asked Universal for this title and had been turned down. I think it's a marvellous film. It's based on a novel by Somerset Maugham that doesn't really work and Herman Mankiewicz's screenplay is a big improvement.

    View attachment 50872

    Robert Siodmak directs superbly and it's easy to see why Deanna Durbin wanted to continue with roles like that and quit the business when Universal wouldn't countenance the idea. Both she and Gene Kelly do well outside their usual range.

    View attachment 50873

  8. Watched another fine Robert Siodmak film noir last night – the exellent 'Kiss of Death'.
    Has 'The Spiral Staircase' been restored from the original negative, including the RKO trademark, which had for later re-issues been replaced by the Selznick logo?

  9. Klaus Stukator

    Watched another fine Robert Siodmak film noir last night – the exellent 'Kiss of Death'.
    Has 'The Spiral Staircase' been restored from the original negative, including the RKO trademark, which had for later re-issues been replaced by the Selznick logo?

    The RKO logo is definitely there with no mention of David Selznick that I recall.

  10. Klaus Stukator

    Watched another fine Robert Siodmak film noir last night – the exellent 'Kiss of Death'.
    Has 'The Spiral Staircase' been restored from the original negative, including the RKO trademark, which had for later re-issues been replaced by the Selznick logo?

    I'm pretty sure the following logo is displayed with no mention of Selznick. Near the end of the credits it says "Dore Schary Production".

    [​IMG]

  11. Durbin and Kelly playing against type are great fun, in a morbid way; just like watching squeaky clean Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell playing alcoholics and opium addicts in The Man Who Came Back.

  12. Robert Crawford

    Great new guys, Eddie Muller is showing "Christmas Holiday" on TCM's Noir Alley on December 23rd.

    Absolutely sensational news! I haven't seen this film complete in decades, and it will make a great Christmas gift from TCM to me.

  13. Matt Hough

    Absolutely sensational news! I haven't seen this film complete in decades, and it will make a great Christmas gift from TCM to me.

    I'll be able to do my Christmas/Film Noir double feature of "Lady in the Lake" and "Christmas Holiday".

  14. I haven’t watched this film in about ten+ years. I put the Blu-ray on last night for myself and two friends. All three of us enjoyed it immensely. I forgot what a suspense film it was and it had me on the edge of my seat through the whole show.

  15. Robert Crawford

    I'll be able to do my Christmas/Film Noir double feature of "Lady in the Lake" and "Christmas Holiday".

    There is a major question whether TCM has pulled the upcoming showing of "Christmas Holiday". It that happens to be true, I can't express in words how disappointing that schedule change is for me.

  16. Robert Crawford

    There is a major question whether TCM has pulled the upcoming showing of "Christmas Holiday". It that happens to be true, I can't express in words how disappointing that schedule change is for me.

    On the upside, perhaps it signals an upcoming blu release? If it was broadcast on cable, it might have dampened some of the enthusiasm for the disc release.

  17. Malcolm R

    On the upside, perhaps it signals an upcoming blu release? If it was broadcast on cable, it might have dampened some of the enthusiasm for the disc release.

    I wish that is true, but there has been issues with this title beforehand which is why it's never been seen by many people for so many years.

  18. It might be a rights issue with the Irving Berlin song Always. Berlin was a notoriously tough negotiator and it's possible his estate is continuing the same way. When Irving Berlin was in his nineties, he was approached by a film producer who wanted to use the song in a new movie. Berlin refused, saying he was saving the song for a forthcoming project!

  19. Robert Crawford

    There is a major question whether TCM has pulled the upcoming showing of "Christmas Holiday". It that happens to be true, I can't express in words how disappointing that schedule change is for me.

    Oh, no! Santa just delivered me ashes and switches if this is true.

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