“The Spiral Staircase” (1945) gives us a suspense story with the archetypal “dark and stormy night”. Many suspense films since have taken a leaf out of the book of director Robert Siodmak and especially cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and used the devices they did, which now may seem almost cliché. Here every shadow and sinister nuance is fresh, and new, and like nothing that ever came before.
Dorothy McGuire is a servant in a New England household in the early 1900s, headed by a feisty invalid matriarch played by Ethel Barrymore. Miss Barrymore lives with her grown son, Gordon Oliver, and stepson, played by George Brent.
The film opens in a curtained-off room of a small village hotel where a silent movie is being shown. The determined matronly pianist grimly follows the action on screen with musical accompaniment. The camera pans to a rapt audience, no one more rapt than Dorothy McGuire, who is clearly deeply involved in the silent movie, clutching her hanky and suffering agonies with the heroine.
The camera leaves the audience and pans to an upstairs room in the hotel. A woman is spied upon from the dark recesses of her closet by a figure unseen except for the menacing gaze of one frightening eye. Next we see the woman as a victim from the perspective of this hidden killer. We still hear the accompanist’s piano rumbling ominous chords from the floor below. When the killer strangles the girl, the movie below concludes, and it is “the end” indeed.
We discover this is one of a string of murders, and that the victims are all young women with various afflictions.
When Miss McGuire walks back in the darkness to the enormous Victorian home where she works as a maid, the wind and rain kick up, and she hears the sound of footsteps following her. This, and when she fumbles with her house key and drops it in the mud are only two instances where suspense rises, even if nothing is really wrong. The idea of imminent danger is kept moving briskly along, like kids kicking a can down the street. We are continually tricked. There are even comic moments which continue the suspense, such as when the family cook played with humorous brandy-swilling buffoonery by sly Elsa Lanchester, tumbles in the dim hall. At first we are led to believe she may have been attacked, as Lanchester accuses with an outraged, “It was him!”
We see she has only tripped over the ever-recumbent bulldog, Carlton.
Another instance is at the entrance of Lanchester’s husband, handyman Rhys Williams, who enters from the storm suddenly when a door is opened for a guest to leave, and he is unexpectedly standing there on the porch, rain soaked and sinister-looking. Apparently, it is only another false alarm, this time. Maybe.
Williams later comforts McGuire during a cozy visit in the kitchen that being murdered is as rare as winning the lottery. “It’s never me. It’s never you. It’s always somebody else.” The director cleverly plays us between scenes where something could happen but doesn’t, and scenes where something happens before we realize the danger. Maybe it’s the lottery and maybe it’s more like roulette.
Dorothy McGuire’s character is repeatedly warned by others to be careful, as she is labeled, perhaps by them more than by herself, to be a prime candidate for the killer’s next victim, because the killer targets handicapped young women. McGuire is mute, the victim of past emotional trauma, rather than from a physical impairment. Her muteness makes the opening scene watching the silent movie especially poignant, where the pantomime on screen foreshadows McGuire’s world of pantomime to communicate.
The local young doctor, played by Kent Smith wants to help her recover her speech and pushes her to help herself, to get her to replay the trauma that left her mute, but she cannot face painful memories.
McGuire has a special, even occasionally playful, relationship with Ethel Barrymore, who prefers McGuire’s ministrations rather than the severe and much put upon nurse, played by Sara Allgood. Bullying Barrymore’s room is cluttered with hunting trophies. The feisty widow was a crack shot in her day, and she repeatedly warns McGuire to leave the house for her own safety, or else stay with her and sleep in her room, even at one point urging McGuire to hide under Miss Barrymore’s bed. As sick as this old lady with the frequent spells is, she feels quite capable of defending a much younger, stronger woman. We see that Miss McGuire, and her muteness, inspires protective feelings in most people, but apparent disgust in a killer who murders young women with imperfections.
Miss Barrymore’s concern is made greater, as we eventually come to realize, because she believes the killer is not only lurking in the neighborhood, but is actually in the house. We are given several broad hints that her charmingly insolent, gallivanting son Gordon Oliver has dubious morals and weaknesses that may include murder. He confesses that he likes to see women cry.
Stepson Mr. Brent, a workaholic professor, who keeps his secretary Rhonda Fleming busy typing on a clunky old typewriter the size of a Buick, seems to share his stepmother’s suspicions. At this point, with as many red herrings as suspicions, the foreshadowing warns us to be wary of everybody, from the pistol-packing constable to the pistol-packing Miss Barrymore, to Carlton the recumbent bulldog. As George Brent tells McGuire, “Don’t trust anyone.”
Central to the story is the house. The excellent ensemble cast seems to give us a tour of the house, breaking up into pairs for hushed discussions, and impatient lovers’ rendezvous, and bitter arguments in various different rooms, always interrupted at a scene’s climax by unwanted intruders.
A magnificent set, it has many levels and the camera follows McGuire, taking us the audience from room to room, almost like the eye of the killer. The spiral staircase of the title is an iron circular stairway, ugly utilitarian back stairs meant for servants, quite unlike the imposing staircase with the carved wooden banister in the front hall. The spiral staircase leads from the main floor of the house down to the kitchen, and then continues down to a lower cellar level, which is very creepy. People lose their candles down there and get lost in the dark.
Even just the hollow plunking sound of the actors ascending and descending the iron steps echoing in the bare, unadorned stairwell is evocative, as lonely and creepy a sound as the wind and rain outside.
The house is heavily ornamented with Victorian drapery, dark wainscoting, parquet wood floors, elaborate gaslight sconces, elegant chandeliers and miles of carpeting. The walls stretching to high ceilings close in on us with busy wallpaper and dour portraits. Dramatic for its overwhelming sense of a grand age in decline, it is as if the house represents the moral decay of the dwindling dysfunctional family limping along into the decadent present.
We see an interesting contrast in the daydream McGuire imagines of her wedding to the young doctor, which occurs, of course, in the house, the central place to the story. In her daydream sequence the house seems alive again, swarming with guests, and vibrant, lighter, and there are baskets of flowers festooning every corner. One might imagine this is how the house appeared in earlier times, before the old widow lost her husband and her enthusiasm for life, before her son and stepson became the kind of weak men she despises.
A large full-length mirror on the landing of the front stairs gives Dorothy McGuire an opportunity to appraise herself, to see herself as others see her. She silently moves her lips, works her jaw in a pose to see how she would look if she spoke as effortlessly as others do, all the people she envies for their eloquence. Suddenly we are aware through a subtle shift in the camera perspective that she is being watched. In another instant, it is apparent to us that it is the killer who is watching her, that we are looking over the killer’s shoulder, who is looking over hers. So smoothly do these moments of tension occur that they are upon us before we realize.
The last half hour of the film is the most suspenseful. The killer is loose in house and aggressively stalks her. The constable shows up unexpectedly but leaves before she can alert him. Her desperate attempts to attract his attention from an upper floor window bring the film to a dramatic crescendo, and when her last hope for aid is gone, we see there is nothing to stop the killer from getting her.
Now she charges all through the house, upstairs and downstairs, like an Olympic sprinter. The final showdown happens on the spiral staircase, and we learn that neither the mute Miss McGuire, nor the invalid Miss Barrymore, is as helpless as they seem.
Dorothy McGuire does recover her voice, first with a scream, and then with a choking call for help on that new-fangled telephone box. How nice for her that she gets to talk to an operator who is a real person, and not a recorded voice message telling her to press certain buttons for more options. That always makes me want to murder somebody.
An interesting version of this film was produced on radio by Screen Director’s Playhouse with Dorothy McGuire reprising her role. Of course, since this was radio, a mute actress will not do, so McGuire was allowed to speak the private thoughts of her character. This actually worked out pretty well, giving us deeper knowledge of her feelings and her past. The childhood trauma that left her mute was also devastatingly dramatized, and with radio word-pictures we are allowed to imagine an horrific scene fully played out. Her trauma is only briefly discussed in the film.
Also added to the radio version was the Bible passage from the Song of Solomon which McGuire’s character relates to the exquisite beauty of speech and how being able to speak to the doctor, whom she loves, would allow her to express not only her desire for him, but convey her deep wish to be desired, and not just pitied.
“My beloved spoke and said unto me
Arise my love, my fair one
And come away with me.
For lo, the winter is past
The rain is over and gone…
… let me hear thy voice,
for sweet is thy voice….”
This is not included in the film. The radio version also reminds us of the irony that an actress with such a lovely speaking voice is playing a mute.
We don’t get quite as much insight into McGuire’s psyche in the film as we do in the radio version, despite her engaging movie portrayal of the mute young woman. We do get that beautiful house, though. You can’t duplicate Musuraca’s cinematography, and that nightmare labyrinth house, on radio. It is one of those instances where the house becomes like another character in the movie.
Have a listen here for the Screen Director’s Playhouse version of “The Spiral Staircase”.