Category: 1946

Have you ever had a dream where you were so scared that you couldn’t speak. You were so immobilized with fear that no sound would come out of you. It is a terrifying feeling to be in danger and know that you have no way of alerting others to your plight. This is why isolation and loneliness are such major themes of so many horror films. The films hope to prey on that most basic of human fears and use it to enhance the sense of terror from whoever the film’s villain may be, whether this is Michael Meyers, Jason Vorhees, or random strangers terrorizing you and your wife in a cabin. In 1946’s The Spiral Staircase, this terrifying sense of helpless vulnerability is taken to its logical extreme by making the  endangered heroine mute and showing that without one’s voice, we are as shieldless among others as we are alone if no one can hear us scream. Alas, a fairly predictable and conventional plot are saddled with the additional burdens of hammy over-acting and the subtlety of a wrecking ball, but thankfully, the film’s cinematography is simply gorgeous and saves what would have otherwise been a terribly mediocre picture.

In The Spiral Staircase, Dorothy McGuire plays Helen Capel, a mute serving girl caring for the elderly Mrs. Warren (an Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore) in her massive estate. The film begins by setting up the major conflict of the film which is that a serial killer has been murdering all of the disabled women in town and has just murdered a crippled woman in her hotel room. Everyone in town believes that Helen will be next, and so she is under strict orders not to leave the mansion of the large family she takes care of. Rounding out the cast are George Brent as Mrs. Warren’s son, a professor, and the virtual patriarch of the mansion as Mrs. Warren is very ill and bed-ridden, Kent Smith as the local doctor who loves Helen, and Gordon Oliver as Professor Warren’s womanizing stepbrother. As the night progresses, we soon see how any of these men could potentially be the killer, and slowly but surely, the killer begins to make his move to take out the defenseless Helen.

Despite the heavy-handed nature of the story which tried to sell you so obviously on certain characters being the killer that you knew it wasn’t them, this film was shot in a stunning black-and-white and the effective camera-work made even the most obviously red-herring scenes more tense than the actual final stand-off. The film did some really creative things in terms of composition of shots such as some scenes being shot as reflected off of an eyeball. It’s been done to death these days, but in the 1940’s, that was a fairly revolutionary technique and it works. Also, the shadow work was phenomenal and it did an extraordinary amount to sell the tension and grimness of the proceedings. Ethel Barrymore was always shot in such a way as to make her seem like an even more ill and crazy version of Miss Havisham from David Lean’s version of Great Expectations.

For fans of classic crime thrillers, this is definitely a must watch as it will throw in virtually every trope and cliche of the murder mystery genre. At one point a character says that the killer could be anyone in the room, and I almost started laughing because no one says that line in a serious voice these days. This film hails from a more innocent and less refined time, and as an initial foray into some light psychological thrills, the movie definitely has some value. For those who require the complexity and ambiguity of modern thrillers, you may find this film to be hopelessly ham-fisted but one must always remember to analyze old films in the context of their times and not necessarily by today’s standards. I’m not able to forgive the acting which was pretty over-the-top all around except for maybe Ethel Barrymore, so that’s the only truly awful part of the film. All in all though, if you’re looking for a good thrill that you’ve never seen before, you could do worse than The Spiral Staircase.

Final Score: B-


In one of my English classes in high school, the teacher was really pissed off at all of us (and was just generally an unpleasant lady to begin with), and so to punish us, she assigned Charles Dicken’s classic novel Great Expectations expecting that we would all hate the book as much as she did. In most hilarious fashion, her plan backfired because, for the most part, we all really enjoyed the book. In what can most basically be described as Dickens deconstructing the kind of stories that he’s most famous for (rags-to-riches, orphans, mysterious benefactors), Dickens managed to deliver what is to me his most memorable story. I just finished watching 1946’s adaptation by auteur David Lean, and while it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as Dicken’s original tale, it was still an entertaining, if flawed, picture.

For those who were never forced to read the novel at some point in their academic careers (I feel like it ranks up there with like The Great Gatsby or Romeo and Juliet in terms of how many high school kids are forced to read it), Great Expectations tells the story of a young orphan boy named Pip, who lives with his abusive sister and her kinder husband. When Pip is younger he begins to enter into the service of an eccentric spinster named Mrs. Havisham who uses Pip to amuse herself and her ward, Estella, generally by treating Pip absolutely terribly. When Pip is 20, he discovers that he has been given an inheritance by a secret benefactor, and the plot thickens when Pip’s past and the identity of his benefactor come back to greet him, in ways that you were not expecting (unless you were me and called the ending).

Part of the reason I love Great Expectations, the novel, so much is Dicken’s rapier and dry wit. For a book that is quite dark and depressing by Dickens standards, it also has some moments in it that had me literally laughing out loud while I read the book. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem to grasp how funny the book could be at times and it’s a rather serious affair throughout. The closest it comes to humor are the two scenes where Pip and Herbert box. Another area that the movie unfortunately fails is in the casting of grown-up Pip. Pip is supposed to be 20 when he comes into his inheritance, but the actor they cast to play him looks like he’s 40 years old. This is like Luke Perry on Beverly Hills 90210 times like ten. It’s ok though cause the young actor playing little Pip was quite talented for a child actor.

The art direction in the film was superb and it definitely (saying this having not seen the other films from 1946) deserved the Oscar that it won in that category. Miss Havisham’s mansion is exactly as creepy and dreary as I imagined it, and the scenes in the various graveyards and other major set-pieces are all put together great. It’s shot in a beautiful black and white that is used to its fullest effect. The actress playing Miss Havisham nailed the intense craziness and bitterness of the spurned bride in a way that makes you legitimately concerned for the actress’s well being. Also, you get a great small part by an incredibly young Alec Guiness a.k.a. the original Obi-Wan Kenobi. I wish he had played Pip instead of playing Herbert Pocket.

If you’re a fan of  the original novel, I can’t really see you being too disappointed with this adaption. As far as I can remember the details of the novel (since I read it so long ago), it is quite faithful to the actual events of the story even if it can’t completely match the book’s tone. If you’ve been curious about the book but don’t want to actually read it, I can easily recommend the film as an introduction to Dickens’s timeless story. It’s a story that has stood the test of time far better than many others, and it’s a film I can readily recommend to most.

Final Score: B