I’m taking a break from molls and smart-mouthed hoods today to write about a good ol’ fashioned “dark house” mystery: The Spiral Staircase. I saw it for the first time last night and am pretty hyped about it, so I have to get this review of my chest. Directed by German transplant Robert Siodmak and shot in balls-out expressionistic mode by shadow meister Nicholas Musuraca, the film is a masterful exercise in suspense with a helluva one-two punch at the climax. The atmosphere in this one is almost inconceivably dark. It’s like sticking your face in a can of black paint, then trying to make your way through a large house. It’s a powerful visual experience wrapped around a wicked little mystery. And I haven’t seen a staircase captured so passionately since Odessa.
The film begins with an enraptured audience watching a silent film at a makeshift movie theater in a hotel conference hall. The year is ca. 1916, so a projectionist is hand-cranking the film with no thought of carpal tunnel while a woman accompanies on piano. Meanwhile, in one of the hotel rooms above, a woman is getting ready to turn in for the night. Cut to an extreme close-up of a lascivious eye peering out from her closet and It Is ON.
Aside from some laden melodramatic moments, The Spiral Staircase doesn’t let up the tension after this initial scene. This movie straight up terrorizes yer eyeballs.
Dorothy McGuire (Gentleman’s Agreement) stars as Helen, a mute housekeeper working for Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), an ill, bedridden grouch who has a soft spot for the young servant. Warren’s son Steven (Gordon Olivier) also lives in the mansion, as well as her stepson Professor Albert Warrent (George Brent). Steven is a trampy globetrotter, who’s recently returned from Paris. Albert is a bookish, fancy boy who wears heavy robes and writes textbooks about goldfish or something. Also in the mix is Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), a charismatic young doctor whose devotion to the Hippocratic oath irks the other local doctors.
There’s a bit of romantic tension between Helen and Parry, although he may be interested in her for strictly professional reasons. He believes that he can restore her voice, which she lost due to a childhood traumatic fire. They share a few minor melodramatic moments that bog down the overall narrative. Their romantic subplot is pretty weak and never really explored. I found myself twiddling my thumbs during the majority of their mushy parts. These bits are a minor blemish, however, and never really impair The Spiral Staircase‘s thick-fingered vice-grip.
Remember that girl who was killed in the opening? She’s the third victim in a string of serial murders targeting women with afflictions – just like Helen the mute. Obviously she’s the next target of the killer, but the film presents numerous people who could be the murderer. There’s the womanizing Steven, cocksure Albert, the nosy groundskeeper, Albert’s touchy secretary Blanche, and the family dog, a mush-mouthed bulldog adorably named Carlton who always seems to pop up at curious times. I don’t trust that canine.
While there isn’t much to the story, Siodmak and Musuraca establish an impossibly tense atmosphere seeped in shadows and claustrophobia. The geography of the house is established really well, so it’s easy to keep track of where everyone is in the house at all times, which only heightened my panic attack. Typically I don’t bother trying to figure out whodunnits because I like being surprised (and I’m a horrible detective), but watching The Spiral Staircase I couldn’t help but play along – “Isn’t Steven upstairs? Crap, where was Albert last? His office? That means Blanche is in the basement, dammit.” Despite doing my best to keep track of all the players, the film was always two steps ahead.
The final 15-20 minutes of the film are truly terrifying – much more suspenseful and suffocating than most modern thrillers. The use of mirrors, POV, and space is ahead of its time. Siodmak’s expressionistic style is effectively used within the confines of the Warren mansion and Musuraca’s shadow-play is incredible. When I used the word “suffocating” I wasn’t foolin’. Noir is populated with shadows, but the blind corners, doorways, and titular staircase in this film are darkened in an almost surreal manner. That’s that German influence, man. I haven’t seen shadows this thick – visually and metaphorically – in an American film since Night of the Hunter.
The Spiral Staircase is a simple, but terribly unique mystery that genuinely kept me guessing. It makes most contemporary thrillers look like dinosaurs. I recommend it for a stormy or snowed-in night, lights off, cellphone in the other room, bills paid, dog walked, dinner digested, best friend buried, etc etc etcetera.
Robert Siodmak Power Rankings:
1. The Killers
2. Criss Cross
3. The Spiral Staircase
4. Phantom Lady
5. Cry of the City
6. The Dark Mirror
7. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
8. The File on Thelma Jordon
9. The Suspect
10. Christmas Holiday