The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a longtime favorite of mine and it has been hailed as a prototype for many of the best giallo films. With thoughts of murder and black-gloved killers running through my mind it seemed like a good time to revisit this classic thriller that features an Academy Award-nominated performance by Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden matriarch of a wealthy family that is concealing some unsavory secrets.
The film takes place in the early 1900s while a dark and stormy night cloaks a small New England town. A serial killer who preys on women with disabilities is on the loose and the film opens with a chilling murder occurring above a nickelodeon showing silent romantic films to an enraptured audience. In attendance is a mute servant girl named Helen (Dorothy McGuire) who works as a live-in companion to Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), a wealthy bedbound dowager with two adult sons (George Brent and Gordon Oliver). When the constable (James Bell) arrives to investigate, he sends Helen home with a warning suggesting that she may be the killer’s next victim. We’re soon introduced to the Warren clan as well as their servants (Elsa Lanchester, Rhonda Fleming, Sara Allgood & Rhys Williams) and the local doctor (Kent Smith) who seems to have eyes for Helen. Any one of them could be a murderer and for the next 80 minutes we’re left guessing the killer’s identity as the cast seals themselves away in the creaky old Warren mansion for the night. Will Helen survive? Will anyone? Watch it to find out!
Or keep reading but be warned, spoilers await on the road ahead.
This was Ethel Barrymore’s 18th film (she spent most of her acting life on stage) and her first with David O. Selznick’s Vanguard Films Inc. Selznick formed the short-lived production company in association with RKO in 1943 and signed Barrymore to a four-year contract in 1945. Their partnership proved to be very successful and Barrymore went on to appear in The Paradine Case (1947), The Farmer’s Daughter (1948), and another one of my favorite 1940s films, Portrait of Jennie (1948). All four of the films they collaborated on received Oscar nominations but The Spiral Staircase and The Paradine Case were singled out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences due to Barrymore’s performances.
Robert Siodmak (Son of Dracula; 1943, Phantom Lady; 1944, The Suspect; 1944, The Killers; 1946, The Dark Mirror; 1946) directed from a screenplay based on a popular suspense novel by Ethel Lina White (The Lady Vanishes). I haven’t read the original book but by most accounts, the film apparently takes creative liberties with the source material. Other notable contributors included RKO staples Nicholas Musuraca who was responsible for some of the best cinematography of the 1940s ( Stranger on the Third Floor; 1940, Cat People; 1942, The Seventh Victim; 1943, The Locket; 1946, Out of the Past; 1947) and composer Roy Webb (The Magnificent Ambersons; 1942, Cat People; 1942, I Walked with a Zombie; 1943, Murder, My Sweet; 1944, The Body Snatcher; 1945, Notorious; 1946) who was an early adapter of the theremin. Their combined talents made The Spiral Staircase an unforgettable thriller that’s maintained its classic status for generations of film lovers.
One of the movie’s greatest assets is its spooky setting. In Siodmak’s hands, the deteriorating mansion where the cast waits out the night becomes a unique character with its own voice and motives. The building’s rotting unkempt exterior masks its rich interior that includes long winding hallways and numerous rooms meticulously decorated with Edwardian bric-a-brac including some striking taxidermy; a tiger rug, stuffed birds, and pinned butterflies. These decorative flourishes suggest the house has become a sort of tomb or death chamber that will eventually swallow up all the inhabitants. And of course, there’s that twisting, turning, spiral staircase enveloped by shadows that could be a pathway to another world or a brief byway to hell itself.
Merging various genres and subgenres including gothic horror, classic Old Dark House mysteries, and atypical Film Noir, Siodmak was able to concoct a potent cinematic experience that has inspired countless imitators and admirers in the U.S. and abroad. Films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), Fritz Lang’s M (1931), and Richard Thorpe’s Night Must Fall (1937) had explored the sordid world of serial killers before and incorporated some of the same visual motifs. But The Spiral Staircase with its gloved killer, POV photography, violent depictions of death, obsession with dead animals, unrelenting suspense, atmospheric score, compelling use of location, and the bold incorporation of dream logic that’s integral to the narrative, became a prototype for the European giallo films that became popular in the 1960s & 70s.
Its influence can be spotted in the work of genre trailblazers such as Mario Bava (Kill, Baby, Kill; 1966, Danger Diabolik; 1968, Bay of Blood; 1971, etc.) and Dario Argento (The Cat o’ Nine Tails; 1971, Deep Red; 1975, Tenebre; 1982, etc.) as well as many American slasher movies that followed in their wake including Blood and Lace (1971), Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978). While it’s undeniable that The Spiral Staircase owes a lot to Hitchcock’s early films, it’s also worth noting the “Master of Suspense” may have assimilated a few ideas from Robert Siodmak into his own work. This is particularly notable in Psycho (1960), which was based on the true-life crimes of serial killer Ed Gein and also focused on a bizarre mother and son relationship, displayed an obsession with taxidermy, and featured plentiful close-ups of eyes while using an old house with a deadly staircase as its setting.
The cast of The Spiral Staircase is uniformly good but some stand out performances include Dorothy McGuire as the mute Helen suffering from post-traumatic shock following the death of her parents, Elsa Lanchester as the booze stealing kitchen maid, Sara Allgood as the cantankerous nurse, George Brent as the gentlemanly scholar turned killer and Ethel Barrymore as the matronly Mrs. Warren.
Critics have complained that Barrymore didn’t do enough in the film to deserve her Oscar nomination but I don’t agree with that conclusion. While it is true that she spends most of the picture’s 80-minute running time in bed, this was somewhat of a standard position for the 67-year-old actress who was required to portray bedridden women in many of her later films including None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and Pinky (1949).
What makes Barrymore’s role as Mrs. Warren stand out is her relationship with the mute Helen as played by McGuire. Beginning with their first interaction, we get a glimpse of the friendly bond they share as Helen playfully tries to rouse her charge from slumber. Barrymore is sublimely restrained as she gives her costar a wide side-eyed glance and tight-lipped smile but her cheery demeanor quickly dissolves when she begins to communicate her private and public fears. Mrs. Warren’s unhappy existence is revealed while she bemoans her son and step-son as ‘weaklings’ and relates a story to Helen about her deceased husband who insulted her looks but appreciated her hunting abilities. Her insistent demands that Helen should leave at once for her own good indicate that Mrs. Warren would like to follow suit but her age, responsibilities and bad health act as weights that keep her chained to the crumbling family home.
She is the film’s soothsayer, truth teller and witch-like hag bestowing prophecy in a Macbeth-like fashion that unfortunately goes unheeded by all. And in the film’s final moments she becomes Helen’s savior by using her hunting skills to take down a serial predator who also happens to be one of her sons. Dorothy McQuire is the movie’s rightful star but she shares the horror moniker of ‘Final Girl’ with Ethel Barrymore in The Spiral Staircase. Both women are responsible for defeating the film’s male villain. Both women are survivors. Both women are horror heroines. Despite its brevity and limitations, Mrs. Warren is a meaty role for a grand dame of the stage and screen.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2016