Fun fact: The Spiral Staircase was actually the first movie I ever watched on TCM. I can remember being sick, eating a grilled cheese and some soup, and being captivated by this black and white movie on my television screen. If memory serves, Robert Osborne did the outro for it, too. Since that time I’d never seen the movie again. Long out of print The Spiral Staircase is now available on a glowing Blu-ray from the folks at Kino and is a dreamy entry into the Gothic thriller popular in the ’40s.
A serial killer is targeting women with various disabilities and Helen (Dorothy McGuire), the mute housemaid of the prominent Warren family is presumed to be the next victim. Trapped in the Warren estate on a dark and stormy night Helen soon discovers the killer is closer to her than she thought.
Just under 90-minutes, The Spiral Staircase spends a lot time of time away from the titled item. We’re introduced to Helen, a mute woman in a sweet, yet chaste relationship with the local doctor (played by Kent Smith, but I won’t hold that against the character). McGuire has always been a calm presence in previous roles, best known as the emblem of motherhood in Disney features like Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and Old Yeller (1957). As Helen, McGuire proves how expressive she can be, smiling and holding her head in a way to convey she’s being funny or touching her face as a stabilizing influence, a reminder to hold herself together when things have turned sour. This is her feature, and the camera frames her beautifully, particularly once she goes down the spiral staircase and discovers a dead body. The film glows on par with a nitrate print.
A key facet of most ’40s-era mystery thrillers set in turn of the century is the photography. Whether it’s Dragonwyck (1946), The Lodger (1944) or Jane Eyre (1943), the camera beautifully captures excellent moments of composition worth framing. Director of photography Nicholas Musuraca worked on Out of the Past (1947), Curse of the Cat People (1944), and The Seventh Victim (1943) which explains the film’s ethereal use of smoke, fog, and shadow. Examples of Musuraca’s distinctive camerawork are evident in the opening scene, as a young woman changes into her nightclothes. Shot from inside the closet looking out, the audience is made aware of a man standing inside, lying in wait. This technique is utilized at other points throughout the narrative, giving off an air of voyeurism that goes great alongside the bizarre sexual nature of the serial killer’s motives.
Why do I think there’s a “sexual nature” to this. The Spiral Staircase relies on the disabled trope of the beautiful mute where, in this case, Dorothy McGuire’s Helen is a beautiful, quiet victim whose terror is enhanced by the fact she can’t scream for help. As we come to meet the Warren family, it’s obvious the family’s two heirs apparent, Stephen (Gordon Oliver) and Professor Warren (George Brent) are a bit misogynistic. Steve tells the family secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) how much he enjoys seeing women cry because it reminds men of their “superiority.” The killer catches women unawares; the first woman is killed while changing her clothes. Even Helen is stalked by the killer while she’s gazing at herself in the mirror, a sly comment on her attractiveness. For the killer, there’s no room for “imperfection,” regardless of outer beauty.
As a disabled writer, it’s not unsurprising seeing disability portrayed this way. In fact, many of the tropes here in The Spiral Staircase endure to this day. Helen is a beautiful woman with a disability that’s not physically afflicting, compared to the “lame” woman killed in the beginning. Helen is a character no different than Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), although where Hepburn gets the drop on her attackers, Helen, being in the turn-of-the-century setting, isn’t nearly as feisty or tenacious. In fact, the true source of strength comes from Ethel Barrymore as the bed-ridden Mrs. Warren. The character who lays around for most of the film actually gets a great send-off at the conclusion. And George Brent, long the love-interest in Bette Davis movies, gets a unique turn here as Professor Warren. It’s incredibly easy to figure out his role in the movie, almost laughably so, but it’s a different character than if you’ve watched him in more love-lorn dramas.
The Spiral Staircase is a gorgeous film and a dependable entry into the “spooky mystery” genre. Dorothy McGuire inhabits a kind, sensitive presence that you root for. The cinematography is exquisite and shines on Kino’s new Blu.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.