The Spiral Staircase

1946 movie

If you haven’t seen it:

spiral-staircase-poster.jpgThe Spiral Staircase tells the story of a pretty young mute woman working as a servant in a magnificent old Gothic mansion, who finds herself the intended victim of a serial killer.

This beautifully filmed thriller has every glorious cliché in the book – thunder storms, creaking doors, flickering candles, dark corridors, square-jawed heroes, inept policemen, red herrings, unlikely plot developments, and a psychopathic murderer. It works brilliantly.

Both this film and the novel it was based on are rather forgotten now, but we caught it on TV one evening recently, and loved it. We recommend it, if you can find it.

If you have seen it:

Scroll down past the trailer for more.

Trailer:

 

SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.

Plot:

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Special effects by Photoshop

A string of murders in a small New England town suggests that there is a serial killer at large, targeting women who have disabilities or afflictions. Dr Parry suspects that his attractive young patient Helen, who has been mute since a childhood trauma, might be the next victim. His instincts appear to be correct as we see a shadowy figure stalking her back to the decaying old mansion where she works.

Inside the mansion, as a storm rages outside, we are introduced to the head of the household Professor Warren, and also his bedridden stepmother, his stepbrother Stephen, and the small team of servants. Smirking stepbrother Stephen has recently returned from Europe, and has already seduced Bridget, the professor’s secretary (to the Professor’s irritation). When the police question him about his whereabouts at the time of the latest murder, he lies.

Dr Parry visits the house to warn Helen of the danger again, and to offer to take her to Boston to see someone who might be able to cure her condition. The invalid mother also seems convinced that Helen is in danger, and this appears to be confirmed when we overhear a servant remarking that a window has been found open. Is the killer in the house?

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Spiral of Violence

Bridget and Stephen quarrel, and Bridget decides to go to Boston with Helen. When she goes down to the cellar to get her suitcase though, she is attacked and strangled. Helen finds her body, and a few seconds later, Stephen appears. Suspecting him to be the killer, Helen locks him in the cellar, only for the real killer to reveal himself – Professor Warren. The Professor chases Helen around the house, but is saved when Mrs Warren appears at the top of the spiral staircase, out of her bed for the first time in years – she shoots the professor, before collapsing herself. Helen’s voice returns to her just in time for her to phone the doctor.

Steve Sunday Says:

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The winners of the Ricky Gervais / Stephen Merchant / Karl Pinkington lookalike competition had mixed feelings about their success.

Square-jawed Dr Parry, who has all the personality of an Excel spreadsheet, seems likely to become the film’s hero, but as it turns out he does not have much to do in the way of heroics. Instead it is the little old woman who saves the day. Of course, when she casually mentioned earlier in the movie what a good shot she was, that did rather telegraph the ending.
I think most people will have guessed the identity of the killer. Once you eliminate Stephen for being too obvious, there are not many other possible suspects. One big clue for me though, was Professor Warren’s moustache. He must have spent hours getting it to look that neat – clearly the actions of a psychopath.

The real star of The Spiral Staircase is the old mansion. It looks fantastic – four poster beds, tiger skin rugs, open fires, chandeliers, candles everywhere, grandfather clocks, a piano, a huge staircase – it is filmed in black and white but you just know there’s red velvet galore!

There are some splendidly silly scenes and unexplained red herrings:

  • Helen goes to phone the police, before remembering she cannot talk.
  • Later, Stephen has also forgotten, as he sends her to make a phone call (although luckily this time, she discovers she can talk after all).
  • How did Mrs Warren know what had happened and how did she know her stepson was the killer?
  • Why did the professor think it would seem less suspicious coming in through the window than the front door?
  • Why did he allow Helen to run off?
  • Old Mrs Warren tells Helen she witnessed a murder once before, and Helen was the victim. Either I missed something, or that bit made no sense.

Trivia Trish Says:

  • The eye we see spying on the victims at the beginning did not belong to George Brent, but to the director.
  • The novel that the filmed was based on (Some Must Watch) was set in contemporary Wales. In the book Helen was not mute, but crippled. The author of the book, Ethel Lina White, also wrote The Lady Vanishes.

Main Cast and Crew:

Dorothy McGuire … Helen Capel
George Brent … Professor Warren
Ethel Barrymore … Mrs. Warren
Kent Smith … Dr. Parry
Rhonda Fleming … Blanche
Gordon Oliver … Steve Warren

Director: Robert Siodmak

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