A young mute woman, Helen Capel, works for the distinguished Warren family in 1906 New England. However, a murderer is on the loose who only targets vulnerable women such as Helen. As the killer closes in, Helen gets conflicting advice from various family members on how to stay safe. Should she leave? Is she really threatened from within this venerable family and its imposing old home? The spiral staircase leads to the answer.
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It was a dark and stormy night ...
To an audience viewing this film more than 60 years after its release, The Spiral Staircase seems laden with cliches of the suspense genre. It’s predecessors were movies such as “The Old Dark House”, helmed by Frankenstein director James Whale. This rather eccentric 1932 film relied more on characterization and atmosphere. however, than any real action. As well, early Alfred Hitchcock movies, such “The Lady Vanishes” and “Rebecca”, offered plenty of strong narrative suspense, as well as psychological examinations of their characters’ motives. “The Spiral Staircase” combines and distills all of these elements into its own distinctive mixture that would become the standard formula for cinematic suspense up to the present day - the vulnerable young woman who is left targeted and then systematically isolated in a remote location; the crazed killer whom she may or may not know; the dramatic thunderstorm; false scares before the real ones begin.
However much we may be used to these conventions of the genre, this granddaddy of suspense films is still satisfying to watch and its surprising freshness comes from its high production values - crisp and evocative black and white photography, eerie sound effects, as well as an ensemble cast and a smart script.
The film begins with the murder of a young lame woman in a local hotel, where Helen (Dorothy McGuire) happens to have gone alone to see “the flickers”, the earliest motion pictures. We’re given an extreme close up of a malevolent eye hiding in the dark recesses of a hotel closet. That is our only clue as to the possible identity of the killer, which is to say it could be any man in the story.
Ethel Barrymore, as an invalid confined to her bed, is a sleepy lioness. She exudes authority even as she occasionally dozes and it’s clear she misses nothing. There is no excess sentimentality in this performance. Mrs. Warren is a tough old survivor, and, one feels, so is the actress, who refuses to ask for the audience’s sympathy. It’s the formidable Mrs. Warren who is immediately and most concerned for Helen. The two women, old and young, bedridden and unable to speak respectively, are the characters most attuned to the mounting danger around them. The rest of the house’s occupants seem largely interested in their own mundane concerns, while occasionally checking in with Helen. This behavior only seems to validate the two womens’ acute awareness of their vulnerability as the tension mounts.
The rest of the cast is very good, but there is no star who dominates the emotional attention of the audience. Dorothy McGuire, who plays Helen, is the quintessential everywoman. She is very effective and moving at times as someone who cannot speak her fears. But she does not have the overwhelming emotional presence of say, Ingrid Bergman, who was originally offered the role and turned it down. George Brent, as Professor Warren, Helen’s employer, seems world weary and yet benign. Gordon Oliver, as Steven Warren, spars off of his brother well. There is comic relief provided by the staff - Elsa Lanchester expertly pilfering a bottle of brandy from under her employer’s nose and Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker, the ornery Irish woman who must submit to the elderly Mrs. Warren’s verbal abuse.
This movie is based on a novel, “Some Must Watch”, by crime novelist Ethel Lina White, who in the 1930s and 1940s was as popular as Agatha Christie. The writers, in their adaptation, not only succeed in creating an effective build up of tension over the heroine’s fate, they also allow credible insight into the characters’ motivations. For instance, there is a psychological basis to Helen’s muteness. She witnessed her parents burn to death in a house fire as a child. Eventually we also learn of the killer’s own inner torments which have driven him to murder.