When it’s on: Friday, 31 August (12.50 pm)
BBC2’s excellent run of matinee classics ends on a high note with Robert Siodmak’s 1945 chiller, The Spiral Staircase. In reality, it might be little more than a whodunnit, but the film is dressed up in welters of gothic imagery, masterful use of light and shadows, and a villain straight from the pit of your worst nightmares.
Based on Ethel Lina White’s novel, Some Must Watch, the tale was first adapted for the radio before RKO brought it to the big screen. In early 20th century New England, Dorothy McGuire is Helen Capel, a girl rendered speechless by a tragedy she witnessed years before. Despite her impediment, Helen leads a relatively happy life as servant to Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore), an ageing matriarch who lingers in the bed of her family’s mansion. Mrs Warren’s stepson, Albert (a Professor played by George Brent) and biological offspring Steve (Gordon Oliver), a libertine who has eyes for the Professor’s secretary (Rhonda Fleming), also live with her, along with the various servants, including Elsa Lanchester’s boozy housekeeper and Sara Allgood as the verbally abused nurse.
A spate of murders in the neighbourhood put Helen in danger. It seems the killer is tracking young women with disabilities, as witnessed early in the film when we see the dispatch of a limping girl. All we get of the murderer is his eye, a cold, black and utterly merciless orb into which the camera plunges so that we see the victim from his perspective. Later, when spying on Helen, his viewpoint has her without a mouth, an unsettling and unnatural tease into his world.
Most of the action takes place within the Warren household, on a relentlessly stormy night that would be cliché-ridden if it didn’t genuinely add to the atmosphere, giving the place a cut-off feel as characters steadily drop away to leave Helen in there with the killer. The night-time setting slowly develops the lengthening shadows, particularly those surrounding the eponymous staircase, which casts long black lines against the walls. Helen’s muteness becomes her own worst enemy as she’s unable to call for help, reduced instead to scribbling notes as the tension rises.
If The Spiral Staircase has a fault, it’s in the plot, which follows standard crime flick motifs – the one you think did it turns out to be innocent; the ‘good’ Doctor (Kent Smith’s Dr Parry) being set up as the hero who’ll take Helen away is himself called out on another assignment, and so on. But it’s a film not far from 70 years old and any ‘seen it all before’ moments are understandable, and in any case the narrative plays second fiddle to Siodmak’s carefully constructed sense of dread, and a great cast. McGuire, Brent and Barrymore are all fine leading performers, the former doing especially well in a role that requires her to convey everything physically. But it’s the supporting players who really shine, Allgood’s long suffering nurse and a scene stealing trip to the wine cellar with Lanchester who’s in search of a dram.
For some darn fine further reading about The Spiral Staircase, two friends of the site have covered it on their blogs. Colin’s account at Riding the High Country places it within the context of film noir, whilst Badblokebob over at 100 Films in a Year offers a novel comparison between Siodmak’s original and the inevitably inferior remake from 2000.
The Spiral Staircase: ****