Tuesday 14 June 2016

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Mel Dinelli, from the novel, Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore

Index: 2016 Centennials.

Ethel Lina White isn’t a name that resonates today, even for aficionados of the crime fiction which she wrote, let alone fans of film who experienced her work only through adaptation to the big screen. However, she was a Welsh novelist who was very successful in her day back in the thirties. She wrote seventeen novels, most of which fell into the crime genre; three of them were adapted into major motion pictures, though all were retitled for the screen. We may well be excused for not recognising novels like 1933’s Some Must Watch, 1936’s The Wheel Spins and 1942’s Midnight House, also released in the US as Her Heart in Her Throat. However, film fans ought to recognise what they became: The Spiral Staircase, filmed a number of times but first by Robert Siodmak in 1945; The Lady Vanishes, whose many adaptations include an oustanding one by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938; and 1945’s The Unseen, a thematic sequel to Paramount’s hit of the previous year, The Uninvited. All are well worth seeing.

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.

And yes, we see him, early and periodically throughout, though we don’t see who he is until the grand reveal towards the end. We just see small parts of him, mostly his eye, and the camera plays up his voyeurism beginning with his murder of a young lady with apparent issues walking. It floats around in her hotel room as she opens her closet to collect her nightgown, but as she walks away, it zooms into that closet to locate the killer hiding behind her clothes, zooming all the way into his voyeuristic eye. She’s his third victim, after a girl with a scar on her face and another who was simple. It’s no stretch to imagine young Helen as his next target, as everyone apparently does, because of her psychological inability to speak. By coincidence, she’s downstairs from the murder as it happens, watching the 1914 version of The Kiss in an auditorium. It’s worth mentioning that she’s comfortable with the characters in this silent film because they can’t talk either but, the moment it ends, her terror back in the real world begins.

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.
With ladies of this calibre in the cast, it’s an uphill struggle for their gentlemen colleagues to enforce their own presence. George Brent is most prominent as Prof Albert Warren, that stepson, but he’s soft spoken and in the shadow of his screen brother, Steven, played by Gordon Oliver, the one major cast member I didn’t recognise from elsewhere. He plays a really good sleazeball, trying it on with Blanche with misogynistic glee, womanising with a knowing smirk and becoming in the process the overt first choice for our serial killer; it’s notable how Albert looks over at Steven every time anyone talks about leaving. He had a smaller role in Jezebel, which co-starred Brent, and others in pictures like San Quentin and the first Blondie movie, but he never really found stardom and this arrived close to the end of his career. There’s also Kent Smith, trawling the ground in between Glenn Ford and James Garner as Dr. Parry, who wants to help Helen recover her voice, and Rhys Williams as Lanchester’s husband, the everyman of the house.

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.
Each of these component parts helps The Spiral Staircase towards being not just a good picture but a great one, but the script had to be up to scratch too. Mel Dinelli may have been the least qualified member of the crew, given that he hadn’t previously written a movie of any description and, in fact, wouldn’t write another for four more years, but he enhances the claustrophobia apparent in the Warren mansion through Musuraca’s camera by pitting each of the characters against each other tighter and tighter, just like the spiral hinted at in the title. He notably uses a whole slew of emotions to do this, not just fear but also love, hate, lust and envy. As a result, we feel sure that Helen is going to be the next victim too, even as we realise that the absence of extra characters hints that the killer is surely already within the household in which she works. Never mind the windows that open mysteriously to the consternation of Mrs Oates, the killer’s already inside and he’s someone to whom we’ve already been introduced.

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.
It’s not the deepest mystery in the world, because there’s a really short list of suspects for us to evaluate; it really comes down to whether we expect the killer to be the obvious candidate or not. However, we can’t fail to be drawn into Helen’s growing despair, not by the mystery but by the Warren mansion itself, which almost usurps McGuire’s role as the lead character because of Darrell Silvera’s set decoration and Musuraca’s eye for memorably dark visuals. As focused as we are on the lovely Helen, there are shots where she’s just a set decoration herself, like one where she walks past the iron railings outside the house or another where she’s framed in a huge mirror that, through reflection and deep focus, provides fantastic views of the inside of the mansion. We’re not reliant here on old dark house trappings; there are no secret passageways or paintings with their eyes cut out. Instead, the place merely looks creepy and gets creepier as the film runs on because of what happens within it and how it’s all shot.

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.

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