The Spiral Staircase (1945)

While a crowd watches a motion picture downstairs, a disabled woman living in a hotel is watching a storm move in. She is also being watched by a shadowy figure from her wardrobe, who steps out and proceeds to strangle her. The movie downstairs ends and the crowd hears the commotion, but everyone arrives too late to save her.

It turns out this is the third in a string of similar murders in the small community, and mute nursemaid Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is advised to get home before dark for her own safety. She is currently living in the home of Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), a well-to-do invalid who also lives with her two sons, one a professor (George Brent) and the other, Steven (Gordon Oliver), a nomadic ne'er-do-well whose arrival seems to coincide with the start of the murders. In addition, he is carrying on an affair with the family secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), whom the professor seems to have had a history with.

Helen is given a ride back to the house by Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), who intends to help her regain her voice by taking her to a specialist in Boston. He also has romantic attentions and intends to marry her when they get there. Before they reach the Warren House, Dr. Parry is called away to take care of a patient, and Helen walks the rest of the way, arriving just as the full force of the storm hits. Her progress is noted by a man in a black raincoat, and when she enters the house it is made clear that killer is in there with her. It also becomes clear what his motive is - he has been targeting women with disabilities.

Rather than just piling up bodies, The Spiral Staircase relies on performances and atmosphere. The few murders that do occur are performed imaginatively and in the shadows, and an aura of tension is maintained throughout. Until the end, one doesn't know if the killer is an intruder from outside or if it is one of the occupants of the house.

It is, of course, a movie of its time, and it is set even further back - around the turn of the 20th century. Although Dr. Parry is meant to be a love interest, the most frightening thing is how, through his efforts to cure her, he is quite emotionally and borderline physically abusive. It is obvious that she would rather remain and care for Mrs. Warren, but it is continually suggested that she must do as she is told for her own good. It is quite telling that in the end all the men who seem to know what's good for her are unable to seriously protect her.

Though some may find this slow by today's standard, I was quite amazed at how close it was to modern low-budget film making. I did read one review that compared Robert Siodmak's direction in this film to that of Orson Welles, and I can see where a number of Welles's innovations are used, just on a smaller scale as the interior of the house becomes the main stage for most of the movie.

In the end it is a well-filmed, well-acted and tense thriller that deserves your attention.

The Spiral Staircase (1945)
Duration: 73 minutes
Starring: Dorothy McGuire, Kent Smith, Ethel Barrymore, George Brent
Director: Robert Siodmak

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