The Sprial Staircase (1945) Hollywood Film Review
‘The Spiral Staircase’ (1945), directed by Robert Siodmak, is a medium paced thriller, with a psychological component, set in a small village town in America circa early 20th century, where ladies with imperfections and disabilities are becoming the prey of a psychological killer. The film is based on the novel ‘Some Must Watch’ by Ethel Lina White, where its protagonist character was crippled and not mute. It is the time when the civilization of mankind is on the threshold of new inventions. We see silent motion pictures, horse carriages as means of transport in the rural and semi-urban towns of America, and even the affluent family in the small town not using electricity but having telephones. This setting is perfect for a serial killer who is at loose targeting ‘imperfect’ poor women as his prey. The film starts on an afternoon and reaches its climax in the darkness of a stormy night, telling a story of a few hours, but not too fast.
The Spiral Staircase Movie: Storyline
The story of ‘The Spiral Staircase‘ starts in a fine afternoon in a small town motel where the villagers have gathered to see a motion picture, when they all hear the noise of some turmoil thud upstairs. It is the second victim of a sick killer who is still at loose in the small town targeting women who are impaired in some way or the other. The village mob leaves the movie show and heads towards home. One of the movie watchers is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a mute young lady who looks after Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), an affluent lady in the small town. On the way she is escorted by her admirer Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) for a while, but unfortunately he had to leave her in the midway to attend a serious patient. Helen walks back to her workplace, the huge mansion owned by the Warrens. But she does not realize that a mysterious character stealthily stalks her all the way. Even after she has entered the mansion, a suspicious noise is heard, and the windows that were shut because of the rain are now widely ajar. But the dwellers of the house take it as the mischief of the pampered watch-dog. They overlook the impenitrating gaze of a pair of eyes watching them again. And it is so very strange, the watch-dog did not bark at the intrusion of a stranger!
After two women being killed in the town, the elderly aling lady Mrs Warren is concerned about her mute nursing companion Helen’s safety. Helen has lost her speech in childhood in a mental shock, but her fiance Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) is certain that she is perfectly capable of getting her speech back. He also plans to take Helen to the experts in Boston for her treatment. And after the unfortunate murders of the other disabled women, Mrs. Warren is sure that Helen would be the next victim of the psycho-killer. She insists Dr. Parry that they leave town that very night. But Parry has to go to see another patient who is very ill, before he leaves town, and he asks Helen not trust any other person but him, and call him at his patient’s place if anything goes wrong. It is a stormy night, and the mistress of the huge mansion Mrs. Warren is very ill and weak. She faints at the slightest emotions and needs medications to get back to consciousness. The other inmates of the Warren mansion are Albert, Mrs. Warren’s step son, Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), and her son Steven (Gordon Oliver), Blanche (Rhonda Flemmign), the professor’s secretary, Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), and house keeper couple Mr. and Mrs. Oats (Rhys Williams, Elsa Lanchester).
Steven has just come back home from his Europe tour, and quite presumptuous about courting women. He is right now busy flirting with his step-brother’s beautiful secretary Blanche. Nurse Barker and her patient share a very sour relationship. Mrs. Warren is more fond of her companion Helen, than the professional nurse. According to Mrs. Warren, she pays the nurse to sit outside her room all the time. And when they could not bear anymore of each other, Barker resigns and Mrs. Warren is glad to see her go. She leaves in the middle of the stormy night, and Steven is sent to arrange for her carriage. There is no one else in the house. Mr. Oats has been sent by the professor to get some medicine for her aling step-mother, who has again fainted, Mrs. Oats who has stealthily grabbed a bottle of brandy from the cellar behind her master’s careless eyes and is under its influence right now. And when Helen goes down to the cellar she discovers Blanche’s dead body. Steven is back by now and Helen takes him as the killer. She locks him outside the house. And then the actual killer attempts to kill her. It is the professor, who along with his step-brother was always looked down upon by their father as weak men. The late Mr. Warren had his presence all throughout the film, though not ever bodily present, was a strong man who lived life to its fullest extent, loved drinking and hunting as many rich men of that time. His sons did not enjoy what their father did which did not make him very happy about his sons. He always regretted to have not some manly sons. That lingering insult has given birth to a serial killer in Albert who hopes if only his father has seen him grow so strong and bold a man, who cannot tolerate imperfection and has the courage to kill imperfect women.
Albert has killed seven other of Mrs. Warren’s attendants and many more innocent girls in town. But he always would wait for Steven to come back home, so that he is not the only person subject to the suspicion. He also confesses killing Blanche, who was unfaithful to him, and exposes his cunning plan to send Mr. Oats away, and pretending not to see Mrs. Oats steal brandy from the cellar. And for Steven, it is Helen herself who took care of only hope to save herself from the predator. Albert must kill HElen, the mouthless crippling according to his sickly imagination. Helen runs all over the house, up and down the spiral staircase of the huge mansion. She even bangs the window when the village inspector is leaving, who has come to check with the professor that everything is all right at the Warren place. But her beating at the window panes and frame are subdued in the storm and the continuous noise of pouring. Helen calls the number Dr. Parry has left with her, and bangs on the telephone, but the receiver, as expected, does not unerstand the meaning of such noise. And when Albert approaches to kill Helen, it is Mrs. Warren who shots him with a revolver. She has heard Albert from her room where she laid pretending to be unconscious. Helen scream out of shock! She gets her speech back. And when Steven comes, Mrs. Warren apologizes to Steven for suspecting him to be the killer all these years. Helen calls Dr. Parry and this time she talks!
‘The Spiral Staircase’ is a wonderful film to watch. And compared to many films made in the 1040’s, it is smart and free of any kind of overacting. The story telling is quite artful. The casting and direction are wonderful too. It is the kind of story that does not age over time. No wonder, ‘The Spiral Staircase’ was remade in 1975 by director Peter Collinson.
* Actors: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming
* Directors: Robert Siodmak
* Writers: Ethel Lina White, Mel Dinelli
* Producers: Dore Schary
An unusual suspense film, The Spiral Staircase tells the story of a mute servant girl threatened by a murderer who has a penchant for killing the handicapped. Ethel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester, and George Brent co-star, while Dorothy McGuire expertly captures the dilemma of the mute Helen Capel. Capel, who has not been able to speak since childhood, must somehow call for help before becoming the killer’s next victim. McGuire’s performance carries the film far past any B-movie qualities in the plot, and the last line is one of the most memorable in film history. Silent movie buffs will especially enjoy the opening scene, which takes place at a turn-of-the-century movie parlor. –Mark Savary
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