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-