Writers: Mel Dinelli, from the novel, Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore
I’m reviewing that original version of The Spiral Staircase, the most recent of those three films but the earliest of the source novels, as Dorothy McGuire would have been a hundred today, 14th June. She had a highly successful career, nominated for an Academy Award for Gentleman’s Agreement and worthy in films as varied as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Yeller and Three Coins in the Fountain. She even played the Virgin Mary in The Greatest Story Ever Told, but I chose this personal favourite to celebrate her career because she gets to lead a fantastic cast, above Elsa Lanchester and an Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore, all while portraying a character stricken mute because of childhood trauma. It’s a fantastic opportunity and she gives a strong performance without the benefit of dialogue that reaches superb on occasion and never fails to depict her as a delightful young lady, an appropriate target for a killer who has it in for girls with disabilities or afflictions. Because she has no voice, he literally sees her with no mouth.
Most of the film unfolds at the Warren mansion, where Helen works as a companion to the bedridden Mrs Warren, the matriarch of the family who has moments of lucidity but others of apparent confusion. Ethel Barrymore is stunning in the role, another one with inherent limits as she can’t get out of bed. She steals her first scene merely by opening her eyes and she repeats that feat at a later point in the film too. It’s no wonder that she was nominated for another Academy Award (she had won two years earlier for None But the Lonely Heart), but she lost to Anne Baxter in The Razor’s Edge. She came much later than her brothers to a screen career but she was nominated four times in six years. She’s only the most prominent of an astounding female cast that also includes Elsa Lanchester as Emma Oates, her housekeeper, who’s too fond of the brandy; Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker, whom she loathes; and a young Rhonda Fleming as Blanche, her stepson’s secretary, building on her showing in Hitchcock’s Spellbound earlier in the year.
While some get better opportunities than others, and the women generally many more than the men, this is a glorious textbook entry on how to build atmosphere. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was surely blessed with fantastic set decoration and his work is enhanced by a great score by Roy Webb that’s almost symbiotic, but he makes it look easy. His name is unjustly neglected, given that he was arguably responsible for shaping the aesthetic of film noir by bringing German expressionist techniques to his work on Stranger on the Third Floor in 1940, a year after he worked with Karl Freund on Golden Boy. We remember Val Lewton well today for the subtle horror movies he produced in the forties, and we remember his directors, but we should also remember the contributions Musuraca made to many of them, including Cat People, The Seventh Victim and Bedlam. His film noir resume includes an enviable collection of classics like Out of the Past, Clash by Night and The Hitch-Hiker.
The final piece of the puzzle is director Robert Siodmak, one of those German auteurs who fled the Nazis during the Second World War and found a career in Hollywood. Already important for his debut film, People on Sunday, made with others who would become key names in the film noir era, like Edgar G Ulmer, Billy Wilder and his own brother, Curt Siodmak, he moved on to direct cult hits like Cobra Woman and Son of Dracula before moving into film noir and helping to enforce how good the Germans were at it because they’d invented many of its techniques back in the silent era. This mash up of mystery, horror and film noir wasn’t even his first, but it built on The Suspect, starring Elsa Lanchester’s husband, Charles Laughton, and paved the way for Criss Cross and the picture that landed him an Oscar nomination, The Killers with Burt Lancaster. Put all of these names together and it would be hard not for The Spiral Staircase to be good, but it’s truly great and it plays better each time I see it.
With so much to enjoy, it’s admirable that Dorothy McGuire, credited first above Brent and Barrymore, manages to remain a focal point throughout. She’s actually threatened a lot less than we think she is, but she’s the prospective victim throughout, stuck in a set of Kafkaesque scenarios. How can she call the authorities when she can’t speak to them? There’s a great scene where she tries exactly that and her face gradually reflects her realisation that her own trauma may become her downfall. Another has a fantasy wedding sequence she imagines as her ticket to happiness turn into nightmare when she finds herself unable to say, ‘I do.’ All of this turns everything back on her: while an insane killer is stalking her, it’s her own inability to overcome a childhood trauma that traps her and the challenge to cast off her own chains defines her. Speaking again would be a life changer but now a life saver too. Dorothy McGuire’s centennial is only one reason to watch The Spiral Staircase but, frankly, every reason is a good one.