THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: Blu-ray (RKO Pictures, 1946) Kino Lorber
Wonderfully atmospheric in all its flickering gaslight and Gothic charm, the grand ole house with its assortment of colorful personalities, including one serial killer, and the well-heeled cast of Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester and Sara Algood to boot, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946) ranks among the most fascinating and ingeniously constructed psychological thrillers of the post-war period. Mel Dinelli’s screenplay, based on Ethel Lina White’s superb page-turner, ‘Some Must Watch’ is as compactly fashioned as it remains imaginatively photographed by master cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca; the Victorian bric-a-brac shot with a cozily deceptive warmth on this windswept and rainy eve that gradually unravels into a far bleaker and more sinister sense of foreboding. Musuraca had already shot several of RKO’s most renown chillers, including Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944). So, his expertise in finding the all-pervading fright, using chiaroscuro-inspired compositions with deep shadows in very deep focus, was already honed to a finite science by the time he signed on to The Spiral Staircase.
At a taut 83 min., personally supervised by Dore Schary during his tenure at RKO, The Spiral Staircase is a tour de force, wholly invested in the lasting emotional effects of childhood trauma. And although rather simplistically distilled (for the sake of time concision) in one brief scene, the premise nevertheless holds water and rings true. Both as a stylistic exercise, and a compelling thriller, The Spiral Staircase is perfection from start to finish; its ominous mise-en-scène stealthily unsettling as McGuire’s mute heroine, Helen McCord, navigates her way through a labyrinth of terror. Helen may not be the most readily recognized heroine of this ilk in Hollywood lore (that honor arguably belongs to Jane Wyman’s Oscar-winning turn as the tragically victimized mute in Johnny Belinda, made 2 years later). But McGuire’s Helen, the ward of an enterprising professor with so much more to hide, Albert Warren (George Brent) and his odd family, ailing step-mama (Ethel Barrymore) and devil-may-care black sheep of a brother, Steven (Gordon Oliver), is an astute – if silently resilient – young Miss, who understands far more than she is able to reveal in mere words.
Part noir, very Hitchcockian, and with a dash of Val Lewton shudders thrown in for good measure, Robert Siodmak’s expertise in framing the claustrophobic action just so has inadvertently concocted the textbook example for the modern slasher flick; albeit, without all its contemporary blood and guts to grotesquely put off. No, in its place Siodmak’s thoroughly creepy film possesses a visual panache and polish that almost hypnotically compels the viewer to look on, filling the screen with one inventively orchestrated camera setup after the next. The assemblage of this gorgeously photographed footage miraculously never draws attention to itself, and yet, contributes immeasurably to the movie’s advancing danger and hair-raising dread. Ingeniously, Siodmak circumvents the Production Code while still offering his audience some blood-curdling depictions of a sexually-aroused serial killer; the shadowy figure lurking in closets, close-ups of a soulless male gaze (incidentally, Siodmak’s own), the use of the subjective camera, etc. et al. These are techniques still being mined for all their worth in thrillers today, and that even the masters in suspense and horror, Hitchcock and John Carpenter, would employ on their most memorable outings - Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978), to say nothing of the slew of imitators to have followed them since.
The linchpin that makes the picture work is undeniably McGuire’s central performance – richly layered in all its pantomime of vulnerability and unanticipated strength of character. Taking a cue from the silent movie characters Helen is enjoying on the movie screen at the start of our story, McGuire remains Teutonic in her expressions throughout The Spiral Staircase. Where another actress might have devoured the scenery with cheaply overwrought sentiment, McGuire instead lends Helen a base of taciturn inquisitiveness, intuitively to recognize how the camera, even in medium or long shot, reveals the most when offered mere subtleties. McGuire gets some exceptional support from the extraordinary troupe of character actors populating the backdrop. Most notable is Ethel Barrymore’s Mrs. Warren – the caustic invalid, confined to bed and fading in and out of lucid contemplation – determined for Helen swift eviction from this dark old house with too many grave secrets to hide. Indeed, Barrymore would be the only one in this ensemble to receive an Academy Award nomination.
Elsa Lanchester gets a lot of mileage from the eccentric cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Oates, who trips over the family’s bulldog and feigns a bossy exterior, beneath it lurking the proverbial tender heart of gold. And then, there is Rhonda Fleming – a 22-year-old would-be sexpot that producer, David O. Selznick was desperately trying to groom as the next Jennifer Jones. This never happened as, despite her obvious physical virtues, dear Rhonda was hardly an actress. Stretching her fifteen minutes of fame in such A-list productions, Fleming would go on to have something of a career in the B’s later on. She does not get a whole lot of playtime in The Spiral Staircase and it is probably just as well. The male counterparts are even less clearly defined – something of a curiosity as at least one ought to have been as integral to the plot; George Brent’s murderous professor. We also find RKO’s resident ‘good guy’, Kent Smith, still milling about the milieu: this time, as the kindly one-note-wonder, Dr. Parry. Rhys Williams makes a brief, but welcomed appearance as the stout-hearted Mr. Oates, while Erville Alderson is quite enjoyable as the comedic, ole-time country physician, Doc Harvey.
The Spiral Staircase had an interesting gestation. RKO Pictures acquired the rights from David O. Selznick, who had originally planned to make the picture himself as a springboard for Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood career. Alas, ambitions of another kind weighed more heavily on Selznick, who badly needed the funds from the sale of this property to put the finishing touches on his epic and costly western familial saga, Duel in the Sun (1946). Under the agreed upon and highly lucrative terms of his contract with RKO, Selznick received a back end cut of the profits derived from The Spiral Staircase. Subsequently, he bequeathed a shiny red convertible on its star, Dorothy McGuire. Dore Schary, who was recommended by Selznick, had his hand in reshaping the material once it changed studios, suggesting to screenwriter Mel Dinelli that the location be altered from England, in the novel, to New England, adding a delicious Gothic air to the piece; also, likely, to get around casting it with British talent, or rather, Americans faking a British accent. Finally, Schary suggested the design of the actual staircase featured in the title, not a part of the author’s original story, but good for a claustrophobic thrill or two, and, borrowing its inspiration in design from an entirely different tale of suspense: Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel, The Circular Staircase.
Set in an undisclosed New England hamlet in 1906, The Spiral Staircase opens in the crowded parlor of a local inn. Helen is enjoying the silent classic, ‘The Kiss’ along with a select group of locals – everyone, quite unaware that only one floor above them a fragile woman (Myrna Dell) is being savagely strangled as she prepares to dress for dinner. The sound of the woman’s lifeless body toppling to the floor alerts guests and the inn’s proprietor (Charles Wagenheim) something is terribly wrong. In short order, the body is discovered. A constable (James Bell) is brought in to investigate the crime. Arriving too late to this party are the ensconced town physician, Doc Harvey and newly arrived Dr. Parry – congenial rivals, the old extremely skeptical of the new. Owing to his fond affection for Helen, Dr. Parry offers to drive her back to the Warren estate in his horse-drawn buggy. After all, a terrible gale is preparing to whip itself into a frenzy off the coast. Delayed in their travels by a tearful young boy who desperately needs the doctor to attend his ailing father, Helen dismounts from Parry’s carriage, electing to walk the rest of the way home.
Despite the events that have only just transpired, the pending tempest roiling off the coast – already echoing with clasps of thunder – and, the constable and Parry’s heeding, that she go directly home at once, Helen instead, and rather obtusely, dallies along the banks before meandering through the thicket, spooked by a rabbit in the underbrush before finally winding up near the wrought-iron gates of the Warren estate. As the skies open up to an impromptu burst of rain Helen drops her pass key in the mud, frantically scrounging to relocate it, and quite unaware of the shadowy figure stalking her from the edge of the property. Making her way up the front walk and letting herself back into the house, rain-soaked but otherwise unharmed, Helen hurries into the cozily-lit foyer by way of several lavishly appointed rooms; Siodmak, expertly giving us the lay of the land – areas in the Warren estate we will explore more completely later on.
We meet Helen’s benefactor, Professor Albert Warren and are introduced to her bedridden charge, Mrs. Warren. We also take comfort in the stern, but kindly, Mrs. Oates and her husband - the handyman, Mr. Oates. We share a modicum of empathy for Nurse Baker, the put-upon domestic whose skills are being wasted as Mrs. Warren stubbornly refuses to allow the nurse to attend her, repeatedly ordering Baker to retreat into the hall just beyond. In an upstairs office, we find Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) the Professor’s comely private secretary who is having an affair with his younger brother, Steven – considered the black sheep as he is not much interested in finding either a true calling or even making any attempt to secure a profession. In the kitchen, Mrs. Oates discusses the latest murder: three women, suffering a physical impediment, to be horribly killed. Mrs. Oates is concerned for Helen’s safety. After all, this serial killer’s métier is obviously preying on defenseless women. Ordered upstairs to attend to her duties, Helen instead pauses a moment on the landing to examine herself in a full-length mirror, quite unaware she is being watched from the shadows by a mysterious stranger.
Mrs. Warren sternly forewarns of imminent peril and tries to get Helen to agree to leave her employ at once. Believing the ole girl is steadily losing her grip on reality, Helen placates Mrs. Warren. Stubbornly, the dowager refuses to relent and eventually works herself into a state where she loses consciousness. Dr. Parry attends the dowager. Earlier, Mrs. Warren was brought back from her fainting spell by dipping part of a handkerchief in a bottle of ether. Alas, this time, when Nurse Barker goes to fetch the elixir from the medicine cabinet she discovers it is missing. As all supplies of the ether have been depleted in town, Mr. Oates is sent to a neighboring village to retrieve a new batch. Momentarily stirred, Mrs. Warren tries to shoot herself with a revolver from the top drawer of her nightstand. Helen prevents the suicide, but later cannot relocate the gun. Meanwhile, Mrs. Oates alerts Professor Warren to a lack of brandy upstairs. As he keeps it under lock and key down in the thoroughly spooky cellar, the Professor accompanies Mrs. Oates to retrieve a bottle now. When he is not looking, she sneaks another under her apron. Having regained consciousness yet again, Mrs. Warren tries to have Dr. Parry see to reason about Helen’s safety. Already in love with the girl, Parry agrees to take Helen away – to Boston, where he is certain new research will be able to cure her affliction.
We learn from Parry of the sad and tragic death of Helen’s parents in a house fire; the trauma of witnessing their demise as a mere child, sending Helen into this paralytic silence from whence she has yet to recover. Very reluctantly, Helen agrees to go away with Dr. Parry for treatment. He promises to return later in the evening after making another house call. Meanwhile, the romantic détente between Steven and Blanche has reached an impasse. Indeed, Steven does not regard the sanctity of a basically ‘good’ girl, desiring to remain pure until marriage. Insulted by his tiresome advances, Blanche goes to Helen and pleads to join with her and Dr. Parry. Helen agrees and Blanche hurries to the eerie, dank and cobweb-infested basement to fetch her suitcase. Alas, she is not alone and before she can let out a cry for help she is strangled to death by a shadowy figure. Not long thereafter Helen, having grown curious and slightly impatient over Blanche’s absence, descends the spiral staircase, only to discover Blanche’s corpse lying at the foot of the stairs. Now, Helen is confronted by Steven. Believing him to be the killer, Helen manages a deft escape, locking Steven inside a closet before fleeing upstairs. Unable to stir the drunken Mrs. Oates from her heavy slumber, a frantic Helen now telephones Dr. Parry, too late remembering she is unable to speak to the phone operator.
From the shadows, Albert confronts Helen. On a notepad she writes that Blanche has been murdered. It is a critical error in judgment. For as Helen hurries to Mrs. Warren’s bedroom, Albert confesses he killed Blanche out of jealousy and because of her relationship with his brother. Worse, he is the serial killer for whom everyone has been searching. Thoroughly crazed, Albert declares his insane sovereignty on life; a duty to eradicate the weak and imperfect from the earth. Managing a brief escape up the stairs, Helen barricades herself in Mrs. Warren’s bedroom. The dowager is unconscious yet again and Helen, hearing the door bell ringing downstairs, finds the constable has returned to explain to the Professor how Dr. Parry has been called away on yet another emergency. He cannot return to the manor to collect Helen as planned. Their trip to Boston is postponed until the next day. Panic-stricken, Helen breaks the upstairs window and desperately tries to get the constable’s attention. Regrettably, the thunderous storm drowns her feeble gestures. Thinking wisely on her options, Helen escapes to the basement, determined to free Steven. Instead, she is confronted by Albert yet again. He pursues her up the backstairs. Only this time, the two are confronted by Mrs. Warren. She produces the revolver from her bedroom and shoots Albert dead – the overpowering echoes of gunfire stirring Helen into a fervent scream. Mrs. Warren tells Helen to go and free Steven from the closet. Having fulfilled her destiny, the old dowager collapses. She is attended to by Steven, but dies in his arms only moments later. Able to speak for the first time, Helen telephones Dr. Parry to summon him to the house.
The Spiral Staircase is an A+ shocker on all accounts; buoyed by superb production values and a thoroughly nail-gripping narrative that is ably and intelligently acted by the entire cast. Siodmak’s direction starts out with a glacial stillness. But this steadily escalates on the promise and delivery of murderous mayhem, cleverly parceled off and set against the backdrop of a hellish – if stage-bound thunderstorm. If only for its atmospherically gas-lit Gothic interiors, or Roy Webb’s superior and moody underscore, The Spiral Staircase would already have quite a lot going for it. Add to this Dorothy McGuire’s sustained and empathetic performance as the chronically plagued heroine, and George Brent’s masterful bait and switch – the man of science convincingly reduced to a raving lunatic – and The Spiral Staircase adds up to a top-flight, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that will leave most, if not faint-hearted, then at least, respectably clammy with anxiety.
I would like Kino Lorber to clarify what they consider ‘newly remastered’ and ‘restored’. For although The Spiral Staircase in 1080p is a distinct improvement over previous DVD incarnations, this new to Blu offering is neither ‘restored’ nor ‘fully’ remastered, despite having the added advantage – presumably – of being struck from a 4K scan of a fine-grain master. The problems that plague The Spiral Staircase are evident from the moment the iconic RKO Radio Pictures transmitter first appears on the screen; exceptionally grainy, slightly out of focus, very soft around the edges and with noticeable age-related damage. As the credits begin to roll we experience the easily eradicated after effects of sloppy edge enhancement, distracting halos around the credits lettering. The edge effects persist, sporadically, but afflicting a good deal of vertical and horizontal straight lines in railings, ceilings, street lights, etc. Whatever elements have been used to ‘remaster’ this disc, they are neither consistent nor entirely culled from a ‘fine-grain master’: with evidence of second or even third generation prints employed to cobble together this presentation.
From time to time, the image snaps together with marginally more refined textures. Various close-ups reveal an impressive amount of fine detail. But the overall image quality, particularly in medium and long shots, is soft, grainy, and, on occasion, marred by elevated contrast; also, slightly out of focus. This really detracts from our enjoyment. This is not – I repeat – NOT the way any 4K fine-grain restored/remastering effort ought to look. Yes, Kino is at the mercy of whatever elements MGM/Fox, the custodians of this archived classic, are providing them. That said, there is no good reason to deceptively advertise this as either ‘restored’ or ‘remastered’ as not even enough care has been applied to eradicate age-related dirt and scratches, much less balance the grain-structure for a consistent look. At one point, we get a hair caught in the lens. At another, severe horizontal scratches pass through the lens. We also witness tears and some pixelated dirt intruding; plus, gate weave and wobble, with seemingly no attempt to apply any sort of image stabilization to fix these 'fixable' issues. The audio is DTS 1.0 mono, but occasionally suffers from minor hiss during quiescent scenes.
The only extra, save a slew of theatrical trailers, is an audio commentary from Imogen Sara Smith, and a 1945 Playhouse radio broadcast. Smith’s take on Hollywood’s post-war infatuation with Freudian psychology, as well as her parallels drawn between Naziism and our killer’s instinct help to flesh out her historical analysis of the gaslight melodrama. She makes one flub: proclaiming Dorothy McGuire won an Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement (1948). Actually, McGuire never won an Oscar. Whoops, and fact checker, anyone?!? Bottom line: The Spiral Staircase is a sublime thriller par excellence with few equals. This Blu-ray does the least with such a superb movie. What is here is middling quality that, at times, falls desperately short of expectations and very far below all the advertised hype about being ‘restored’ and ‘remastered.’ Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)