"Anything Can Happen in the Dark!": The Spiral Staircase (1946)

In a small Vermont town in 1906, a mysterious killer is on the loose, targeting young women with disabilities. Although she fits the MO because of her muteness, Helen (Dorothy McGuire) doesn’t seem worried, despite the numerous warnings she receives from the police, her beau (Kent Smith), and everyone she works and lives with at the foreboding Warren estate (Elsa Lanchester, George Brent, Rhonda Fleming, and Ethel Barrymore). Over the course of one evening, Helen slowly finds herself in incredible danger as the unknown murderer quietly stalks her, all of it building to a remarkable climax.

The Spiral Staircase is a film I’ll never forget. Within the first few minutes, you’re confronted with a woman being strangled in broad daylight, her horrified face reflected in her killer’s eye. This isn’t a gory film, though. The Spiral Staircase is all about dread and uneasiness. Mel Dinelli’s script and Robert Siodmak’s astounding direction bring in the clichés we know — isolated old house; crazed killer; numerous suspects; a beautiful ingenue for a heroine; a massive thunderstorm — but then uses those clichés to craft something much grander and unnerving than you were expecting.

I'm a huge scaredy cat; the littlest things can make me paranoid for days. When I first saw The Spiral Staircase, I thought I'd be safe. After all, how spine-tingling could it really be? The opening credits immediately challenged my perception as we watch Dorothy McGuire hesitantly descend the titular staircase, accompanied only by the sound of a furious wind. Then, a theremin creeps in until Roy Webb's full-blown score finally kicks in. The credits over, we wander to a quaint hotel whose parlor is being used for a movie screening. The audience watches with rapt attention, but no one is as awestruck as Helen.

Instead of staying with her, though, we drift upstairs to the room of a woman with a limp. She goes to her closet and picks a dress, but as she walks out of frame, we're pushed in closer to the closet. We almost don't even notice the hanging clothes moving... until we're confronted with this abrupt shot, a close-up that has been burned on my brain ever since I first saw it:


The theremin returns and the camera, without giving us a choice, pulls us in closer to the deranged eye, the crippled woman's reflection appearing in it as she puts her dress on over her head, the swirling theremin intensifying. We suddenly hear her struggling, her crossed, outstretched hands conveying her violent death in an image that is both simple and heart-wrenching.




After this scene, I knew The Spiral Staircase was going to keep me on my toes, and I'm sure that was the point. In a way, you're placed in Helen's shoes. (Is it a coincidence that we're introduced to her when she is watching a film just like we are?) You realize that she might not be safe, thanks to the constable warning her as she leaves the hotel, and from then on, you feel as jittery as she does. Those feelings grow stronger whenever Siodmak allows us to see things that Helen isn't privy to, such as when she is walking home and the storm begins. She drops her key in the mud and searches for it, while in the foreground, a figure we didn't even notice before watches her from behind a tree. Although it doesn't sound like much, the direction and cinematography ensure that it's one of the film's best moments of suspense.






Once Helen returns to the Warren estate, the mystery of the killer is still very much on the film's mind, but it's married with the unfolding of the characters' dynamics. Every bit of information we get, we use to try and figure out our list of suspects. There are some obvious red herrings, but the script is excellent at introducing each new character and suggesting how they might fit into the film's overall story and resolution. Our suspicions are also subtly stoked by visual clues, like the rain slicker that the constable and Oates, a servant, wear. We've seen the killer in the same exact slicker, so a red flag immediately goes up when both men appear in it. Even small observations, such as the disappearance of a bottle of ether, wind up playing into the bigger picture.

Something that struck me on my most recent viewing is how the characters seem to always be watching one another. The film is emphatic about the killer's unwavering stare -- the extreme close-up of his eye, a shot of his feet as he hides and watches Helen look at herself in a mirror -- but he isn't the only one to intrude on people's privacy. Siodmak makes this really interesting choice to have many of the characters suddenly appear during others' intensely intimate moments. Helen, for instance, starts running downstairs to get help for the gravely ill Mrs. Warren (Barrymore) and she passes by Mrs. Warren's son Stephen (Gordon Oliver) and Blanche (Fleming), the secretary of Mrs. Warren's stepson Albert (Brent), in a passionate embrace. In another scene, Dr. Parry (Smith) confronts Helen with how she became mute and how she refuses to seek professional help, but they're interrupted when they notice Stephen is in the room.



Adding to the film's unrelenting sense of anxiety is the eerie mood set by art directors Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey. The Warren house is like another character, its large, meticulously decorated rooms practically engulfing the characters whenever they're at their most vulnerable. I also can't get over how well the storm is integrated into the story. The flashes of lightning and noisy thunder don't just enhance the spookiness, they are a key component that isolates the characters.






As if the atmosphere wasn't enough to stun you, Sidomak's visuals and Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography are some of the most fascinating I've ever seen. The mix of candlelight, shadow, and lightning is gorgeous but also helps to make the Warren place a house of horrors, particularly in the evocatively shot death scenes toward the end.







Beware: spoilers from this point on!

One such scene is the murder of Blanche. Having finally realized that she'd be safer staying at Dr. Parry's mother's house, Helen is packing in her room when Blanche enters to tell her that she has decided to leave with her after breaking up with Stephen. Blanche then goes to retrieve her suitcase from the cellar, undoubtedly the creepiest part of the house. Enshrouded by darkness, she starts to feel uncomfortable but pushes ahead. Just as she is ready to leave with her suitcase in hand, the killer strikes, the image of his hand extinguishing her candle an apt metaphor for her fate.







That last shot is just one of many that focuses on hands. Showing Blanche's and the crippled woman's hands at the time of their attacks depicts their tragic demises in a bloodless yet expressionistic way. It also highlights the hands of the victims rather than the strangling hands of the killer, a choice that is both creative and compliant with the Production Code.

The other times we see hands prominently displayed are when Helen raises hers to her face, or more specifically her mouth, reminding us of the gravity of her muteness. There is one especially intriguing moment where Helen sees the constable outside and tries desperately to get his attention by banging on the window and the house with her fists but the storm drowns her out. Without her voice, Helen is forced to "speak" in other ways, allowing her hands to become a kind of conduit for what she is feeling.






Helen's muteness was not something she was born with, but occurred after she helplessly watched her parents die in a house fire. While no one treats her differently because of her muteness, Dr. Parry is the only person who encourages her to try to get her voice back. Having been unsuccessful before, Helen resists seeing the specialist that Parry has found, believing that it is pointless. Although Parry has hope that she can regain her voice, you also feel that he wants to help her move on from her trauma, something she may or may not be ready to do.





What convinces Helen to give the specialist a chance is her love for Parry. After their first kiss, she swoons as she imagines them dancing together in romantic bliss. Her daydream about their wedding becomes a nightmare, though, when they're exchanging vows and her muteness stops everything in its tracks. For Helen, the memory of her parents' death is still incredibly painful, but the thought of not being able to say "I do" to the man she adores is almost too much for her to bear.








The Spiral Staircase is filled with interesting (and mysterious) characters, but the best one may just be Mrs. Warren. Despite being an invalid, she is a fierce, formidable, intimidating woman, played to steely-nerve-perfection by Barrymore. Without even leaving her bed, she makes you feel like you should be shrinking in your seat, but, as we see from her interactions with Helen, there is an undercurrent of warmth -- and regret. We learn that some years ago, Mrs. Warren witnessed a man pushing a "simple-minded" girl down the estate's well and she was too late to save her. She confesses that she sees Helen as that girl, which is why she is so adamant that Helen leaves the house while the murderer is still around.

A former big-game hunter, Mrs. Warren is proud of the skill she had, assuring Helen that she "was as good as any man" at shooting and confiding in Parry that her deceased husband "told me his first wife was prettier but I was a better shot. The only kind of beauty he had any respect for was strength." She reveals that there was a lot of tension between her husband and his sons -- because they hated guns and hunting, he perceived them as weak and he eventually became an alcoholic.



The Warrens are definitely not a happy family. Albert, the "responsible" brother, resents the more carefree Stephen, who lives in Europe, frequently leaving his invalid mother in Albert's care. The one thing the men seem to have in common is their rocky relationship with their father. "Neither of us fit into his concept of what a real man should be: a gun-toting, hard-drinking, tough-living, God-fearing citizen," Stephen ruefully reminds his half-brother. It is also suggested that Blanche had a prior romance with Albert before Stephen swept her off her feet, adding more fuel to their contentious relationship.

For much of the film, we're led to believe that Stephen is more likely to be the killer than anyone else. Mrs. Warren mentions that there is always "trouble" whenever he comes home. He lies to the constable about where he was during the crippled woman's murder. When he gets into a fight with Blanche and she tears up, he chillingly says, "I like to see women cry. Men like to see women cry; it makes them feel superior." When Helen discovers Blanche's body and Stephen is suddenly beside her, we understand why Helen gets suspicious and why she locks him up in the cellar.

Unfortunately, she quickly finds out she incapacitated the wrong brother.





Helen's triumph turns into insurmountable fear as Albert reveals that he has been the monster terrorizing the town. "There's no room in the whole world for imperfection," he cruelly explains. "What a pity my father didn’t live to see me become strong. To see me dispose of the weak and the imperfect of the world whom he detested." While Stephen's scars from his father have made him snide and aloof, Albert's pain has turned him into something twisted and evil. He would prove he wasn't weak by hunting and killing, only his prey would be women, and rather than use a gun, his strength would lie in his hands.

As she is being chased by Albert on the staircase, Helen looks up to see Mrs. Warren, pistol in hand. Without even blinking, she shoots Albert repeatedly, causing Helen to scream. Mrs. Warren realizes that her stepson's first victim was that girl she couldn't save, the one who was thrown down the well. She may have redeemed herself, but she will still carry that regret ("Now it's been done... ten years too late."). When we first met Mrs. Warren, she boasted to Helen about how she came to possess the tiger-skin rug in her room, saying, "I got him before he got me." Little did we know that that idea would come back around and spare Helen's life.

Exhausted by her act, Mrs. Warren collapses. As Stephen, now freed, holds her, she asks him to forgive her, admitting that, like us, she thought the murderer was him, due to Albert cleverly waiting to strike until Stephen's visits. She then quietly passes away while Helen runs to telephone Parry.







Still in shock, Helen manages to give the operator Parry's number. "Dr. Parry, come. It's I, Helen," she slowly says before bursting into body-shaking sobs and dropping the receiver. As the camera pulls back, though, her crying subsides and she lifts her head. A small smile crosses her face while the camera continues to zoom out, the unsettling, dark house once again overwhelming the frame. Except this time, instead of being swallowed up by the shadows, Helen becomes this small beacon of light, an effervescent symbol of survival.

Perhaps what I love most about this film is its ending. It champions feminine strength and eschews the traditional idea of a man coming in at the last moment to save the day. Our final shot isn't a loving embrace between Helen and Parry, as we would expect, but rather a quiet moment with just her as she experiences this breakthrough she didn't dare to hope for.





In the end, The Spiral Staircase is about broken people and the choices they make in order to heal. For Albert, healing means damaging others. For Mrs. Warren, she feels like she needs to somehow rewrite history. For Helen, she must confront her past and find strength in a way she least expected it.

There is a lot that can be culled from this movie, such as its use of symbolism and the psychology of Helen’s muteness, but The Spiral Staircase is also just a straight-up masterpiece from the Golden Age of Hollywood, a fantastic piece of entertainment that is sure to make you check under your bed and in your closets at night before you can go to sleep.























































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This is my entry to the Fifth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Check out the other tributes to the Barrymore family here!

Comments

  1. Terrific review and photos. Must watch it again!

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    1. Thanks! I've seen this a few times now and some of the creepier aspects still get to me. It's an effective film, that's for sure.

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  2. Stopped at the spoilers bit as you've talked me into watching it - fantastic review sounds like one which just should never be remade in colour.

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    1. Thanks, glad to hear you'll be seeking it out! I believe it was remade in the '70s with Jacqueline Bisset, but I just can't imagine it doing justice to the original.

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  3. "It's I, Helen." I always feel as if I have been holding my breath for the entire movie until then.

    Your breakdown of this timeless classic renewed my appreciation for all its glory.

    A bedridden Ethel or Lionel from his wheelchair are such powerful forces on screen. They demand our attention.

    Again: screencaps!

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    1. Thank you! That's a great point. It's like everything has been leading to this moment for Helen.

      That's so true about the Barrymores. They were all such powerhouses.

      You know me and my screencaps! :)

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  4. This is such a fabulous review Michaela! I'm so glad you highlight how wonderful this film is, as I often become rather annoyed when people say it's a Lewton or Hitchcock knock off. While it is definitely a film in Lewton and Hitchcock's ball park, Siodmack directs with such wonderful fluidity and creativity. As you say, Musuraca's cinematography is exceptional. I get goosebumps upon chills upon goosebumps at the thick, impenetrable shadows of the basement, which seem to symbolise Albert's mind. And also, thank you for clarifying that it was Albert who killed that poor girl so many years before. My mother and I couldn't quite click on that one, and you have given us much relief :D I'm so happy that you joined our blogathon with such a treat of an article.

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    1. Aw, thanks! Siodmak was such a strong director in his own right. It can get annoying when people don't give him his due.

      Glad I could clear things up for you two! It's a piece of info that I always forget about, even though in the grand scheme of things, it's pretty important to the story. It has such an effect on Mrs. Warren, and Albert too, since it's suggested that that girl was his first victim.

      Thanks for having me!

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  5. Indeed, this film makes us glue our eyes to the screen since the beginning. With your review I could remember many things I had forgotten and also have a newfound admiration about the film - I love the hypothesis of making us closer to Helen because she starts the film watching a movie, like we're doing. Great review!
    Kisses!

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    1. Thank you! Every time I've watched this film, there have been a few years in between viewings so there is always something I forget about. But I like that that happens -- I feel like I'm getting surprised by it all over again.

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