The Spiral Staircase: Is It Worth The Descent?

by Rachel Bellwoar

When a killer starts targeting women with afflictions, will Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who’s mute, be next? Any summary you read about The Spiral Staircase will mention Helen’s mute but Mel Dinelli‘s screenplay doesn’t give it away right away, making it a shame that most people will go into the film looking for that, because it might’ve come as a surprise otherwise.

The murders do seem to be hitting closer to home. When the latest takes place at a hotel Helen was at to see a movie, she ends up walking to the Warren’s alone, where she works as a companion to the bed-ridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore).
They say lightning doesn’t strike the same spot twice and Helen might’ve been better off seeing another picture because if the gothic mansion where the Warren’s live, and where thunder starts crashing the minute she reaches the fence, is any indication, this isn’t a place to enter lightly.
Inside is a different story. The place is grand but not scary. The Spiral Staircase makes for a good title, and there’s one that leads to the basement, but it’s not an essential title, in terms of how much the staircase plays into the plot.
Helen stays in the house for the rest of the movie but everyone else seems to have chosen that night to leave and Mrs. Warren is adamant Helen should, too, not because she’s fired but because she’s not safe if she stays. With a killer on the loose, and bad weather on the rise, they couldn’t have picked a less suitable night to travel but that’s what makes it so strange. Home is supposed to be a place where you feel safe, but instead everyone’s willing to take their chances outdoors. Something’s wrong with this picture.
McGuire’s performance takes a cue from silent movies, and the killings are stylistic, too, in a way that’s clever but very artistic, and selectively artistic, where McGuire’s acting in a very different style from everyone else (beyond the fact that her character’s mute) so it feels like a performance. Tellingly, the more the cast gets whittled down, the more the film works because there are a lot of scenes where men try to talk for her and make decisions and Helen doesn’t say anything. That’s not a dig at her being mute but when she doesn’t indicate “no” the men assume she’s saying “yes,” and Helen’s not helpless. She simply doesn’t correct them for thinking she is and, while it’s cool that the film doesn’t have Helen rely on pen and paper to communicate, they could have had her communicate more than she does.
Throughout the movie the audience is tipped off to the fact that somebody’s watching and one of the creepiest moments is when you realize the silhouette of a tree you’ve been staring at has been hiding a person the whole time (Mrs. Warren mentions mistaking the killer for a tree and it’s a nice callback to that scene).
Film historian, Imogen Sarah Smith’s, commentary is an absolute asset to Kino Lorber’s new release. I love when commentators reference what’s happening on screen, rather than talk through what happening, so the film and commentary aren’t in sync. All of her observations are spot on, like how well the director, Robert Siodmak, establishes the layout of the house (to where you know where each room is in reference to the others) and her suggestion that the film might be touching on fascism, and PTSD, with the timing of its release right after WWII, is something that would’ve never occurred to me (Siodmak left Germany to escape the Nazis). Smith points out various changes from the book (Helen wasn’t mute in Ethel Lina White‘s original novel) and correctly identifies the silent movie Helen was watching in the beginning (a sign says The Kiss but it’s really D.W. Griffith’s The Sands of Dee).
An additional bonus feature is the 1945 Screen Director’s Playhouse Radio Broadcast of “The Spiral Staircase.” McGuire reprises her role as Helen and if you’re wondering how a radio play about a woman who’s mute works, it doesn’t. Stuck between the conflicting roles of narrator and giving voice to Helen’s interior monologues, Helen is too doting, the ghost of her mom too horrifying, and the evidence too weighted towards one person being the killer. If you’re going to pick a Spiral Staircase to listen to, make sure to make it the film noir one.
Spiral Staircase is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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