“Where’s my brandy?” “I finished it for your own good.”
Set in the early 1900’s in a small New England village Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is a mute who works for Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) as a live-in companion. Mrs. Warren is bed-ridden. While Helen is watching a silent movie in the parlor of a local inn a crippled woman in a room upstairs is murdered. This is the third murder in the area. There is a serial killer on the loose. After the movie Helen returns to the Warren estate. Also in the Warren home are the housekeeper Ms. Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her handyman husband Mr. Oates (Rhys Williams), Mrs. Warren’s son Steven (Gordon Oliver), her step-son Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), a secretary, who is having an affair with Steven and Mrs. Warren’s nurse, Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood).
There is a local doctor who is new to the area. Dr. Perry (Kent Smith) is in love with Helen and wants to take her to some specialists in Boston. He believes they can help her get her voice back. Mrs. Warren is concerned for Helen’s safety. It appears that the killer is targeting women with disabilities, and someone is following Helen. And whoever it is appears to be in the huge mansion. Someone in the house is murdered. With Mrs. Warren bed-ridden and Mrs. Oates in her cups Helen is in a house full of men, for all intense purposes alone. Helen doesn’t know who to trust. And Helen is next on the killer’s list.
“The Spiral Staircase” was released in 1945 in Los Angeles and 1946 in New York City. The movie credits state that it is based on the novel “Some Must Watch” by Ethel Lina White; however, there are some who believe that it was also influenced by Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel “The Circular Staircase”. The movie was directed by Robert Siodmak. When it first came out it was labeled a “Mystery Romance”. Since then there has been a huge debate on how to characterize the film. While definitely a film noir it also has aspects of a gothic horror and psychological horror. It’s even been considered a slasher movie since the main character is stalked and some scenes are in the killer’s point of view.
The silent film being shown is called “The Kiss” but I couldn’t verify it with anything made at the time with the same name. In order to conceal the killer’s identity the shots of the killer’s eyes were actually Siodmak’s eyes. It is your quintessential ‘Old Dark House’ type movie and very much with a Hitchcock flair. Cinematography was done by Nicholas Musuraca, and music by Roy Webb both famous for many of the Val Lewton movies. It all makes for one fascinating movie. If you like old spooky movies, this is one of the best.
This is one of my favorites. I remember watching it during the day when I was home sick from school. I was lying on the couch all bundled up. My mother was ironing and watching it with me. It’s a memory I recall whenever I think of the movie.