Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.
Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.
The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).
Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.
Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).
Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”
The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).
The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.