Sunday, March 29, 2020

Classic Movies to watch during COVID-19: “The Spiral Staircase”

The Spiral Staircase (1946) directed by Robert Siodmak is one of my favorite films. During this time when most of us are confined to our homes, I thought it would be interesting to review this classic.

The Spiral Staircase is based on the novel Some Must Watch (1933) by British Author Ethel Lina. Screenwriter Mel Dinelli, changed the location from Britain to early 20th century Vermont. The plot focuses on a young woman named Helen (Dorothy McGuire) who suffered a childhood tragedy that left her mute. She is employed by Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), a rich old woman who is bedridden and in need of constant medical attention. The Warren home is a large Victorian mansion with lavish furnishings and a spooky spiral staircase that goes down to the cellar. It is also secluded and isolated from the town. The Warren’s employ Mr. and Mrs. Oates, a husband and wife team (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lancaster) of handyman and housekeeper respectively. Mrs. Warren has two sons: Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) and Steven Warren (Gordon Oliver) who has just returned from a trip abroad. Albert, who is the older brother, is actually Mrs. Warren’s stepson by her husband’s previous marriage. Also living in the Warren home is Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), Professor Warren’s secretary.

Helen (Dorothy McGuire) watches a silent film while a murder takes place in the hotel.
The movie begins with Helen attending the showing of a silent movie in a downtown hotel. It’s a great scene for a couple of reasons. It establishes the time period and showcases what the silent movie experience was like. It also helps to establish the mute Helen’s character; she is living in a kind of silent movie of her own.

At the conclusion of the film, the constable (James Bell) arrives at the hotel after a handicapped woman staying there has been murdered. Two other women have been murdered recently and it appears that all the dead women had some kind of physical handicap or deformity. The constable advises Helen to go home before sundown as he suspects the town is being terrorized by a serial killer. Just as she’s about to walk home, Helen meets Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) who offers her a ride in his carriage. It is obvious by the way Helen and Dr. Parry interact that they enjoy each other’s company. Helen accepts the ride, but about halfway home, a young boy stops the carriage and begs Dr. Parry to come to his house to attend to his ailing father even though Dr. Harvey (Erville Alderson) is the boy’s father’s physician. Dr. Parry relents to the boy’s pleas, which leaves Helen to walk the rest of the way on her own. As Helen gets closer to the Warren home, the sky turns dark and it begins to rain. In her hurry to get into the house, she drops her key. As she scrambles to find it on the wet ground, a sinister-looking figure is seen lurking behind a tree, stalking Helen. Fortunately, she finds the key and gets into the house safely, but now we know that whoever the murderer is, sees Helen as a potential victim.

Helen walks the rest of the way home by herself.
Safe inside the house we learn some more about the Warren family. We discover that there is tension between the stepbrothers. It seems that Steven and Blanche had a relationship in the past. Steven just back from Europe seems to want to rekindle that relationship. This situation makes Blanche uncomfortable since she’s employed by his stepbrother, the professor. As the storm rages outside, you get the sense that one is brewing inside this home as well. In the meantime, Mrs. Warren’s condition seems to be getting worse. Dr. Parry is called to treat her, which pleases Helen.

Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) is fearful of Helens life
During Dr. Parry’s visit, it is discovered that the ether, used to revive Mrs. Warren from her spells, has gone missing. The matriarch accuses Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood) of taking it. This is the last straw for Nurse Barker who quits after being accused, leaving Helen to tend to Mrs. Warren by herself. Just before Dr. Parry leaves, Mrs. Warren begs him to take Helen away from the house; she senses some harm will come to her if she stays. He agrees and leaves to attend to another patient, but promises to come back for Helen as soon as he’s done. Professor Warren orders Mr. Oates to go to a neighboring town to get some more ether, a task he’s not keen to do on a stormy night.

Helen on the creep spiral staircase
One by one, people exit the house leaving Helen alone with Mrs. Warren. Not only is Helen isolated because of her inability to speak, but she’s isolated in the huge Warren house during a furious rainstorm. Will she survive the night?

Siodmak is compared to Alfred Hitchcock in his ability to build suspense and it’s a fair comparison. The tension rises to a surprising and satisfying (for me) climax. The film’s production values are first-rate. The cinematography by RKO’s legendary Nicholas Musuraca (I Remember Mama) created the perfect mood with light and shadow. The music is by another RKO contract employee, Roy Webb (Notorious). All these elements work together to create the perfect blend of mystery and suspense.

McGuire is amazing as Helen, acting with her eyes and body since she doesn’t speak. Barrymore gives her usual cantankerous old-woman-sick-in-bed characterization, but it totally works here. Brent is properly reserved as the professor hiding a family secret. The rest of the supporting cast has some great moments, including Lancaster as the housekeeper with a soft spot for brandy and the constable fearful of the Warren’s harmless bulldog.

Helen, Professor Warren (George Brent), Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver)
in a dream sequence
If I had to classify The Spiral Staircase, I’d call it gothic film noir. The remoteness of the setting and the moody photography combine to make that tag make sense.

I guarantee that The Spiral Staircase will not disappoint. It has so many virtues that it’s worth more than one viewing to realize them all.

Let me know what you think of this classic.

You can watch The Spiral Staircase on YouTube.

The Spiral Staircase
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Produced by Dore Sherry
Screenplay by Mel Dinelli
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Music by Roy Webb
Released February 6, 1946


  1. I haven't seen this film, so thanks for posting it on your site! I've bookmarked it to watch later.

  2. Did you watch it? How did you like it?


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