Tuesday, July 14, 2015

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)

After making the classic film noir PHANTOM LADY, director Robert Siodmak helmed THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE for RKO and what a little gem of a film it is!
A master of film noir, Siodmak tackles gothic horror in a film project originally spearheaded by David O. Selznick before he sold the property to RKO. From the very first moment of the film when we see the familiar RKO radio tower, the mood is set masterfully; superlative composer Roy Webb's brassy fanfare lasts only a few seconds when it suddenly dissolves into the evocative sound of wind and rain which then is overlain by eerie theremin as the title card appears on the screen.
The film title appears over a high camera shot looking down upon the eponymous spiral staircase and the top of Dorothy McGuire's head as she tentatively steps onto the top step and descends into the film itself. The film takes place sometime at the beginning of the 20th century as the first scene features a showing of a silent movie in the Village Hotel with Helen (Dorothy McGuire) in the audience. Upstairs, a woman with a lame foot is dressing to go out and, as she moves away from her clothes closet, the camera (brilliantly piloted by Nicholas Musuraca) lingers at the closet as we see the clothes stir and a crazed-looking eye peer out from the darkness.
 
The lame woman is quickly murdered by the hidden killer and a hue and cry is raised.
Helen, who has been mute since a childhood trauma, is urged to hurry home to the Warren mansion where she works as a servant because this is the third murder of a woman with a disability and/or disfigurement recently. While on her way home, the new local doctor in town Dr. Parry (Val Lewton vet Kent Smith) picks Helen up in his carriage. The Doc is sweet on Helen and the feeling is mutual. Dr. Parry is called away for a medical emergency and Helen has to walk the rest of the way home. By the time she nears the Warren mansion (which is further on the outskirts of town than the Addam's Family place), night has fallen. A little under 12 minutes into the film, the promise of the opening credits is fulfilled as the gorgeous cinematography and lighting provides a shot of McGuire in the windy night approaching the gloomy old mansion along a wrought-iron fence as the wind gusts and the autumn leaves swirl around her.
Apprehensively, in a "whistle past the graveyard" attitude, McGuire clacks a branch along the fence posts and enters the spooky grounds of the Warren house. A crash of thunder heralds the sudden downpour as Helen runs the lengthy approach to the house simultaneously searching her purse for the key. The fluid camera follows her as we pass a foreground tree and realize that there is a man in shadow hiding behind it watching her.

Helen drops the key in the mud as the man (who is the serial killer with the same crazed eye close-up) begins to approach her.
More lightning and thunder crashes as the theremin reappears on the soundtrack. The killer begins to lunge towards her as Helen finally finds the key in a mud puddle and races towards the house -- momentarily thwarting the killer's intentions.

I go into this amount of detail of basically only the first 10 minutes of the film in order to somehow convey the beautifully evoked gothic atmosphere which Siodmak and Musuraca conjure to perfection. For truthfully, there's not much mystery here as to the identity of the killer so the greatest pleasure I think derives from the absolutely superlative cinematography and direction and the uniformly excellent performances of the cast. The beautiful exterior shot (looks like a glass painting to me, probably) as well as the interior of the Warren mansion (credited to veteran art director Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey) are sumptuously Victorian and creepy with extreme noirish chiaroscuro lighting; the same as can be found in Siodmak's noirs like the aforementioned PHANTOM LADY as well as all the RKO films Musuraca lensed for Val Lewton's horror productions as well as my vote for the first film noir: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. The inside of the Warren house is all gaslight and candles! REBECCA and JANE EYRE will immediately come to mind.
Inside we have a gothically-disfunctional family with cranky Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) confined to her bed with her sons Professor Albert Warren (a somewhat somnambulant George Brent) and his black sheep step-brother Steven (Gordon Oliver). Also inhabiting the gloomy old pile are Albert's live-in secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), the servant couple Mr. & Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams & the wonderful Elsa Lanchester), a battleaxe of a nurse (Hitchcock veteran Sara Allgood) and the charming bulldog Carlton.
While the interior of the Warren place is all, as I've said, Victorian-looking, it strikes me as slightly odd that the actual spiral staircase of the title is extremely plain-looking: bare banisters and bare steps that look to be made of plain wood or even metal. Actually, with the conical walls surrounding the spiral staircase (also bare and plain) interspersed with windows showing the storm outside, the spiral staircase looks more like it's from the set of a lighthouse. Of course, anything to do with lighthouses is OK with me and the spiral staircase is usually only lit by a candle being carried by a person walking on it so it still looks great.
But I wonder if budget-conscious RKO reused some lighthouse set for this. The film is chock-full of superb Siodmakian film noir set pieces. One example is a scene where someone ventures into the dark cellar (by the light of a single candle, of course) and encounters the killer who, with a single sweep of a hand, extinguishes the candle and backs the victim into niche in the wall. The victim is lit cowering there by the candle until it is extinguished and the niche is then plunged into darkness while the walls on either side of it still are lit presumably by moonlight coming in from a window. The killer strangles the victim backed into the niche which is in total darkness; all we see are the victim's outstretched hands emerging from either side of the inky-black niche as the killer strangles the poor soul. Expertly done.
There are one or two patented "dream sequences" which were so popular in mid-40's suspense/films noir i.e. Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND or the classic MURDER, MY SWEET. These are from the killer's POV and in one disturbing example shows Helen as the killer sees her: with no mouth at all. All the cast perform very well indeed (with the possible exception of George Brent who appear almost zombie-like but that actually works for his character) with the character turns of Elsa Lanchester and Sara Allgood particularly good. The real shining light here, though, is Dorothy McGuire who is the heart and soul of the film and, with no dialogue, provides a vivid, human performance as the mute Helen with particularly expressive eyes.
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is, as I've said already, a little gem which would be wonderful to watch on a dark and stormy afternoon or in the dark of night with all your lights turned out!

2 comments:

Weaverman said...

This film made a great impression on me when I saw it in a cinemas as a kid. I fainted! Always loved it and it was the first film I bought on VHS and later the first film I bought on DVD.

P.E. Cor said...

Looks like perfect viewing for getting into the 'spirit' !