ⓘ The Spiral Staircase (1946 film)


ⓘ The Spiral Staircase (1946 film)

The Spiral Staircase is a 1946 American psychological horror film directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, and Ethel Barrymore. Adapted from Ethel Lina Whites British novel Some Must Watch by screenwriter Mel Dinelli, the film follows a mute young woman in an early-20th century Vermont town being terrorized by a serial killer who targets disabled women. The novel was adapted for a radio production starring Helen Hayes before reaching the screen.

The film premiered in New York City on February 6, 1946. For her performance in the film, Barrymore received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.


1. Plot

In a small village in 1906 Vermont, the mute Helen attends a silent film screening in the parlor of a local inn. During the screening, a crippled woman staying at the inn is murdered in her room by a man hiding in the closet; her murder is the third in a string of serial killings in the community. Dr. Parry, a friend of Helens, drives her to the Warren home, a large estate outside town where Helen is employed as a live-in companion for the bedridden Mrs. Warren. Also residing in the house are Mrs. Warrens stepson Albert, a local professor; her son, Steven; and a live-in staff: Mrs. Oates, a housekeeper; her husband Mr. Oates, a handyman; Blanche, a secretary who is having an affair with Steven; and Nurse Barker, Mrs. Warrens verbally-abused nurse.

At the house, a cloaked figure watches from the woods as Helen ascends the driveway. Inside, Helen finds Mrs. Oates in the kitchen; she discusses the murder, and expresses fear for Helen, as the killer appears to be targeting "defenseless" women. While walking up the staircase, Helen pauses in front of a mirror to examine herself, and while doing so, the eye of an unknown person watches her from the shadows. In the midst of a rainstorm, the constable stops by and warns Albert to keep watch over Helen. After Mrs. Warren loses consciousness, Dr. Parry is summoned to the home. Nurse Barker discovers a bottle of ether has gone missing, and sends Mr. Oates to retrieve some in town. Meanwhile, Mrs. Warren regains consciousness, and urges Dr. Parry to take Helen with him. He offers to bring Helen to Boston and help her work through the trauma of her parents death, which triggered her muteness. She agrees to go, and Dr. Parry makes plans to return later in the evening after completing another house call.

After an argument with Steven, Blanche asks Helen if she can leave with her that night. Helen agrees, and Blanche goes to the basement to retrieve her suitcase, where she is attacked and murdered. Helen later finds her corpse in the basement, and is confronted by Steven. Frightened that he is responsible, she locks him in a closet and flees upstairs. She attempts to wake Mrs. Oates, but she has passed out, drunk on brandy. Helen attempts to call Dr. Parry, but is unable to speak to the telephone operator.

Albert finds Helen frantic, and she writes on a notepad that Blanche has been murdered. As he follows Helen up the staircase to Mrs. Warrens room, Albert confesses to killing Blanche out of jealousy. He then reveals himself as the serial murderer, professing his goal of killing the "weak and imperfect of the world." Helen flees in terror, locking herself in Mrs. Warrens bedroom, where she finds Mrs. Warren unconscious. Meanwhile, the constable returns to the house, and is answered at the front door by Albert; he leaves a message for Helen letting her know that Dr. Parry is unable to return that night, and that they will have to go to Boston the following day. As the constable leaves, Helen attempts to get his attention by smashing the bedroom window, but he is unable to hear it amidst the wind and thunder. Helen returns to the basement to free Steven, but finds Albert waiting in hiding. He chases her as she ascends the staircase to the second floor, but the two are met by Mrs. Warren, armed with a gun. Mrs. Warren shoots Albert multiple times in the chest, killing him, and in the midst of the gunfire, Helen screams in horror.

Mrs. Warren orders Helen to retrieve Steven, and she frees him from the basement closet. Mrs. Warren embraces Steven, and dies on the staircase in his arms. Downstairs, Helen emotionally calls Dr. Parry on the telephone - she is now able to fully speak.


2. Analysis

Since its release, The Spiral Staircase has been subject to significant film criticism and academic discussion, particularly in regard to the films visual motifs and blending of horror and film noir. Although characterized by contemporaneous press as a "mystery romance," the film has been noted by contemporary critics for its prominent Gothic horror elements. It has also been cited as one of numerous progenitors to the slasher film, specifically for its female-centric cast and point-of-view cinematography deployed during scenes in which the killer stalks his victims.

Film scholar Amy Golden notes several significant visual allusions in the film, such as Luis Buñuels Un chien andalou 1929 and Maya Derens Meshes of the Afternoon 1943. Golden cites the film as a "quintessential example of 1940s horror." Writer Denis Grunes in 2007 suggested the film is "in fact a masked allegory of the passage of silent cinema into sound," citing the mute protagonists predicament as evidence. This notion was also suggested by film scholar Amy Lawrence in her 1991 book Echo and Narcissus: Womens Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema.


3.1. Production Conception

Adapted from the Ethel Lina White novel Some Must Watch 1933, The Spiral Staircase was screenwriter Mel Dinellis first screenplay. RKO Pictures had acquired the rights to produce the film from independent producer David O. Selznick, who himself purchased the rights to Whites novel; Selznick had originally conceived a film adaptation with Ingrid Bergman in the lead role. Selznick sold the rights to the project along with several others he owned to RKO in order to help finance the Western Duel in the Sun 1946. Under the terms of the sale, Selznick was given a back end cut of the films earnings, and subsequently gave star Dorothy McGuire a convertible as a bonus for appearing in the film. The original working title for the project was The Silence of Helen McCord.

When writing the screenplay, Dinelli received input from Dore Schary, who was recommended by Selznick. In the early stages of Dinellis writing, it was decided to change the setting from England to New England in the United States, which Dinelli and Schary both decided would lend a Gothic tone to the story. The staircase featured in the script and from which the title takes its name was not originally a part of Whites novel, and was inspired by the Mary Roberts Rinehart novel The Circular Staircase 1908.


3.2. Production Filming

The film was shot between August through October 1945 on the RKO Studio lot in Los Angeles, California. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was hired to shoot the film; he had previously shot several low-budget films for Val Lewton at RKO, such as Cat People 1942, The Seventh Victim 1943, and The Curse of the Cat People 1944.

Musuraca employed several techniques to achieve the films chiaroscuro-inspired compositions, which included shooting at low angles to achieve the appearance of deep shadows onscreen. In order to conceal the killers identity, Musuraca shot director Siodmaks eyes for the close-up shots of the killer watching Helen. On October 10, 1945, toward the end of the shoot, the films assistant director, Harry Scott, died.


4. Release

The Spiral Staircase premiered in New York City on February 6, 1946. This was followed by a national theatrical run, during which the film screened in various cities across the United States during the late-winter and early-spring months of 1946. During its theatrical run, the film managed to gross $885.000.


4.1. Release Critical reception

Variety wrote, "This is a smooth production of an obvious, though suspenseful murder thriller, ably acted and directed. Mood and pace are well set, and story grips throughout." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "This is a shocker, plain and simple, and whatever pretensions it has to psychological drama may be considered merely as a concession to a currently popular fancy." During its local theatrical runs, the film earned reviews in various local press: A review in the Pittsburgh Press called the film a "blood-and-thunder melodrama.done so well except that it tends to be tedious at times instead of tense, so leisurely is it paced that it works up considerable suspense." In the Beatrice Daily Sun of Beatrice, Nebraska, it was noted: "An ingenious plot and the work of a superb cast lend distinction to The Spiral Staircase," with the film being ultimately deemed as "gripping." A review published in the Corvallis Gazette-Times of Corvallis, Oregon, summarized:

The Spiral Staircase is one of the seasons top mystery dramas. this gripping RKO Radio offering is laid in a New England town about the turn of the century. The suspense mounts as the menace closes in around the helpless heroine, who is unable to escape from the frightening family of her employer. A climax, terrific in its impact, had yesterdays audience breathless and tense.

On the internet review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 86% based on 21 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 8/10. Contemporary author and film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film three and a half out of a possible four stars, calling it unforgettable performance by McGuire". Pauline Kael praised the films establishment of characters, noting that it "has all the trappings of the genre.but the psychopaths are quite presentable people, and this, plus the skillful, swift direction, makes the terror convincing."

A review published in the Time Out film guide called the film a "superb thriller," concluding: "Hitchcock couldnt have bettered the casual mastery with which the opening defines not just time and place small town, turn of the century but the themes of voyeurism and entrapment." Film scholar Andrew Spicer praised the films cinematography, calling it "the most beautifully crafted of Siodmaks films, superbly paced with the suspense steadily accumulating in intensity aided by the expressive cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca." Tom Milne of the Time Out Film Guide called the film "one of the undoubted masterpieces of the Gothic mode."

Ethel Barrymore was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 19th Academy Awards.


4.2. Release Home media

The Spiral Staircase was released on VHS and DVD in 2000 by Anchor Bay Entertainment. It was re-released on DVD by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 2005 after the studio and its catalogue were acquired by Sony Pictures. In 2018 the film was released on Blu-ray in the US by Kino Lorber.


5. Adaptations

The Spiral Staircase was adapted as a half-hour radio play on the November 25, 1949, broadcast of Screen Directors Playhouse, starring Dorothy McGuire in her original role.

In 1964, a televised adaptation starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Lillian Gish was released. It was remade again in 1975 as The Spiral Staircase with Jacqueline Bisset, and again as a 2000 TV film The Spiral Staircase with Nicollette Sheridan.


6. Works cited

  • Kael, Pauline 2011. 5001 Nights at the Movies. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-1-250-03357-4.
  • Olney, Ian 2015. "Dead Zone: Genre, Gender, and the "Lost Decade" of Horror Cinema, 1946–1956". In DeGiglio-Bellemare, Marion; Ellbe, Charlie; Woofter, Kristopher eds. Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. pp. 47–67. ISBN 978-1-498-50380-8.
  • Kabatchnik, Amnon 2010. Blood on the Stage, 1925-1950: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection: An Annotated Repertoire. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-810-86963-9.
  • Hutchings, Peter 2017. Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema. Lanham, Maryland. ISBN 978-1-538-10244-2.
  • Lawrence, Amy 1991. Echo and Narcissus: Womens Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema. Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-07082-0.
  • Alpi, Deborah Lazaroff 1998. Robert Siodmak: A Biography, with Critical Analyses of His Films Noirs and a Filmography of All His Works. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-40489-6.
  • Spicer, Andrew 2002. Film Noir. Inside Film. London: Longman/Pearson Education. ISBN 978-0-582-43712-8.
  • Golden, Anne 2015. "Robert Siodmaks The Spiral Staircase: Horror Genre Hybridity, Vertical Alterity, and the Avant-Garde". In DeGiglio-Bellemare, Marion; Ellbe, Charlie; Woofter, Kristopher eds. Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. pp. 90–107. ISBN 978-1-498-50380-8.
  • Commire, Anne 2000. Women in World History. 10. Gale. ISBN 978-0-787-64069-9.
  • Jewell, Richard; Harbin, Vernon 1985. The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House. ISBN 978-0-517-54656-7.