Directed by respected film veteran, Robert Siodmak, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE stars Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore.
This is an oddly titled film (based on the novel by Ethel Lina White) because the 'spiral staircase' which, to my way of thinking, should be prominently on display front and center, is rarely on show and when it is, it's shrouded in shadows and hardly visible. (I blame the camera angles.) I kept looking for the spiral - where is it? I'm still not sure I actually saw it.They do show a spiraling staircase in the opening credits - BUT, NOT THE ONE IN THE FILM. I mean, huh?
Not the greatest of films for sure, but it has enough of a creepy quotient that I thought I'd write about it primarily because in the cast are featured two of my very favorite acting nonentities: George Brent and Kent Smith. YES! Together in one film. Proof positive that they are not the same person (my theory as you may know from a previous post) or else it's a dazzling display of movie magic from 1945.
Kent Smith on the left and George Brent on the right. The duo of Mr. Bland and Mr. Blander.
Here they are as dull and wooden as they've ever been. So much so that it's worth watching the movie for them alone. Why? Well, to see just how monotonous two men can be and still get away with starring in films. Perverse I know.
And the third guy (Gordon Oliver) in the cast is just as bad, in fact he's SO bland that if I had to pick him out of line-up, I couldn't. As a criminal he would probably have made big bucks because no one could have ever described him accurately. Other than two eyes, a nose and a mouth, you'd be hard-pressed to go further.
Admittedly, I watched this from beginning to end with a snarky smile on my face, actually thinking that at some point I might begin to like it.. Oh there were a few enjoyable parts, but on the whole, unless you have a contrary sense of humor (sort of like mine) you'd probably be better off seeing something else.
Here's the basic story:
The setting is small town America way back when. People are still using the horse and buggy for transportation, but since silent films have made their debut (and there is a telephone in the house) it could be anywhere from 1894 - 1929 - though the clothing suggests turn of the century. Americans just don't do this sort of thing as well as the Brits, costume and setting-wise. Unfortunately, the entire thing looks very much like a stage play or little theater production. The whole thing (except for maybe a couple of outdoor scenes) was filmed on a sound stage so you get the idea.
At any rate, the first few rather creepy scenes set up the premise: a serial killer is going around strangling 'defective' young women. Of the three victims so far, one limped, one was 'simple', one had a scar - and our heroine, you guessed it, has a perceived defect which sets her up nicely for the murderer. Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, the paid companion (at least that's what I think she is) of an elderly woman who spends all her time in bed, rolling her eyes and making a nuisance of herself as old ladies were wont to do in those days. She's played by Ethel Barrymore who had exaggerated eye-rolling down to a science if you want my opinion.
The whole movie takes place in the space of one day and night so things begin moving right along from the first.
It must be Helen's day off because she's been in town to watch a silent film and is on hand when the latest murder is discovered (in the same building where they're showing the film). This whole early sequence is handled well enough I suppose - especially the eerie close-up of the killer's eye.
Yeah, pretty creepy.
Shortly thereafter, an undaunted Helen is on her way home after being warned by the local constable to be careful since there's a killer on the loose and it's going to be dark soon - uh-oh, and what's more a storm is approaching. Okay, we'll leave the eye-rolling to Ethel Barrymore.
But luckily, young doctor Parry (Kent Smith) comes by in his buggy and offers her a lift - he's in love with her, you see, and she with him. BUT, there's a fly in the ointment of love: Helen is mute. A terrible experience in her past has rendered her unable to speak. But we're given to understand that it's a kind of hysterical illness and not based on any physical deformity. Too fine a distinction for the killer, I suppose.
The cozy ride is interrupted as a young boy comes to fetch the doctor and so Helen must walk the rest of the way home. She meanders and soon it's dark and the skies erupt with thunder and lightning. (Well, we knew that would happen.) Finally showing some fear, Helen rushes home in the rain, through a tangle of wet bushes and trees and we see the shadowy outline of a dripping man (he's wearing a slicker) lurking in the trees. Yeah, that part was scary. But Helen makes it inside even after dropping her keys and having to flop around in a puddle looking for them. These things will happen when you're in a hurry and a killer is on your trail.
"Get out of this house. NOW!!! Immediately!!! This minute!!!! Don't wait another second!!! Go NOW!!!
Back indoors, we meet the other inhabitants of the huge, silent and rather ugly house. Upstairs in her room there's the bed-ridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), a cantankerous old lady who knows that something evil is about to happen - though it would have helped things along if she'd told someone her suspicions - but then there'd be no story. You know how that goes.
Please note that the staircase behind George Brent and Dorothy McGuire is NOT a spiral one. The spiral (more or less) is reserved for the basement stairs glimpsed only in candlelight.
Then there's her son Professor Warren (George Brent) who does I don't know what in his office downstairs aided by a beautiful secretary named Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who apparently is no better than she should be having caught the eye not only of the professor but of his younger half brother Steven (Gordon Oliver), a slimy Lothario.
Then there are the 'servants': Mrs. Oates (the wonderful Elsa Lanchester) who cooks and cleans, but she also drinks, and her hubby, the grumbly Oates (Rhys Williams) who does whatever else needs doing inside and outside the house. There's a nurse (Sara Allgood) upstairs who takes care of Mrs. Warren but she really has little to do since old lady can't stand the sight of her. Oh, there's also a lovable bull dog who does even less. But he does get some cute close-ups.
Anyway, from the getgo, the old lady begins warning Helen to get out of the house immediately if not sooner. Though she won't say why. Helen apparently weary of being warned goes about dreaming of her doctor (there's a whole dream sequence showing their wedding which ends in disaster since poor Helen can't utter the magic words: "I do."), seemingly oblivious that evil is about to put the kebosh on her happiness.
Once Blanche is murdered, after stupidly going downstairs to the basement in the dark with only a candle to light the way - what is it with these women??? Dark basement. Candle light. Creepy house. Hasn't she ever read a book?
Well, once Blanche's body is discovered, Helen begins to take the immediate danger more seriously. In the end she shows herself to be a young woman with gumption and oh yes, she does overcome her affliction.
Now that I think back on it, maybe the film wasn't half-bad. But it doesn't hurt to approach the thing with a jaundiced eye and a reverence for banality.
Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in on Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other films, television or audio/visuals, other bloggers are talking about today. We're an eclectic bunch.