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October 02, 2018

The Spiral Staircase

spiral staircase spanish poster.jpg

Robert Siodmak - 1946
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

It might be pushing it to describe The Spiral Staircase as photo-giallo. The first view we have of the serial killer is from behind, on a dark rainy night. He is wearing a long, dark coat and a hat with the brim down to cover as much of his face as possible. We also see his black gloves. Not too different in appearance from the killer in Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace. The point of view shot is a favorite trope in giallo, and here we have the distorted view of the victims, all young women, seen misshapen prior to their deaths. There is also the trope of a psychological motivation, a product of the writer's imagination, in this case a misdirected hatred of imperfection. The source novel by Ethel Lina White, Some Must Watch anticipates the suggestions of voyeurism in the titles of several gialli. Just before we share the killer's point of view, there are extreme close-ups of one of the eyes of the killer, followed by a reflection in that eye.

That eye actually belongs to Robert Siodmak and its appearance in this context indirectly anticipates giallo maestro Dario Argento's gloved hands dispatching various victims. Candle lit basements are almost always creepy, as are open windows on the proverbial dark and stormy night. The story of a mute servant girl and an unknown serial killer in a small New England town, trapped in a mansion with the possibility of the killer somewhere near, still holds up after seventy years. I had seen The Spiral Staircase once before, about forty years ago in a 16mm print. There was so much I had forgotten, but where the blu-ray really shines is in revealing the detailed set, the interior of the mansion where most of the film takes place.

The opening shot of the film is deliberately misleading. A tracking shot of a small New England town, the film takes place around 1915 or so. There is a makeshift movie theater inside a hotel, with the hand-cranked projector, and a pianist near the screen, audience in rapt attention. There are a couple of telephones, all requiring hand cranking and the services of an unseen operator to connect calls. Once inside the Warren family mansion, where most of the film takes place, a typewriter is briefly seen. Yet everyone travels by horse drawn buggy, and illumination is by gaslight or candles. If there weren't those few intrusions of the 20th Century, it would be easy to assume that The Spiral Staircase takes place about twenty-five years earlier. The first murder takes place in the hotel room above the movie theater. And perhaps I am taking a leap in making a connection here, but the time that the film takes place was also when the concept of eugenics was popularized and given academic validation.

Siodmak and gifted RKO cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca provide several memorable shots. Dorothy McGuire walking along an iron fence, twig in hand, hitting the bars to accompany her steps. The camera weaving in and out of rooms of the mansion, each holding its own secrets amidst intricate patterns on the walls and furnishings.

None of this would matter if Dorothy McGuire wasn't able to carry most of the film with the expressive use of her eyes and lips. The real movie is in ignoring the narrative elements and just watching McGuire's facial expressions as she gets emotionally involved viewing the silent film, or is actively listening to the nattering of the too friendly doctor played by Kent Smith. Competing with McGuire is Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden family matriarch, her performance pared down to her eyes and commanding voice.

This blu-ray comes with a generally well prepared commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith. Right off the bat, she clarifies that the silent film within the film, erroneously titled, The Kiss, is excerpts from D. W. Griffith's The Sands of Dee (1912). An overview of the main cast, Siodmak, and screenwriter Mel Dinelli. The one error is in stating that McGuire won the Oscar for Gentleman's Agreement - she lost to Loretta Young. Ethel Barrymore, however, was an Oscar nominee for her performance as Mrs. Warren.

The blu-ray also comes with the radio version of The Spiral Staircase. Radio play versions of popular movies were common, especially in the 1940s. However, here, Dorothy McGuire providing the spoken interior thoughts to her characters is no substitute for a performance that depends on what is not being said.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 2, 2018 07:12 AM