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The Spiral Staircase

Director: Robert Siodmak. Screenplay: Ethel Lina White, Mel Dinelli based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White. Producer: Dore Schary. Director of Photography: Nicholas Musuraca. Music: Roy Webb. Art Directors: Albert S. D’Ogastino, Jack Okey. Editors: Harry W. Gerstad, Harry Marker. Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson. Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Helen Capel), George Brent (Professor Albert Warren), Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Warren), Kent Smith (Dr. Parry), Rhonda Fleming (Blanche), Gordon Oliver (Steve Warren), Elsa Lancaster (Mrs. Oates), Sara Allgood (Nurse Barker), Rhys Williams (Mr. Oates), James Bell (Constable). Released: Dore Schary Productions (for) Vanguard Films (for) RKO Radio Pictures, December, 1945. 83 minutes.

Plot Summary

Young women with an “affliction” are being murdered in a New England town in the early twentieth century. While Helen watches a silent movie at the town hotel, a lame woman is strangled upstairs. Helen hurries home, where she is a servant to the bedridden matriarch, Mrs. Warren. It is the quintessential old dark house, and it is a stormy night. Helen is in mortal danger because she is mute, and the killer lives in the mansion. Dr. Parry, who loves her, is called away from treating Mrs. Warren to see another patient. Blanche, having first left Albert for his younger half-brother, Steve, breaks up with Steve. When Helen discovers Blanche is dead, she thinks Steve is the killer and locks him up in the basement. The real killer, Albert, starts stalking Helen. She desperately tries to telephone Dr. Parry, but she can’t make herself speak. She goes down the backstairs to free Steve, but Albert is waiting for her. He chases her up the spiral staircase. Mrs. Warren has managed to leave her bed and is at the top of the stairs holding a pistol. When Albert is in sight, she shoots, and Helen screams. Her voice recovered, Helen completes the phone call to Dr. Parry.

Commentary 

The Spiral Staircase is a notable example of the kind of film noir that challenges traditional studies of film noir. For decades, terms and concepts that have been among the most frequently used to define film noir have not been applicable, in fact, to many movies that are considered film noir. As a rule, the film noirs that have gotten short shrift are “women’s pictures,” which are likely to take place in a home and deal with a romantic crisis (so-called “tear-jerkers,” “three hankies” or “weepies”).

However, during the classic years of film noir, especially in the 1940s (less so in the 1950s), many women’s pictures are crime movies that have the characteristics of the noir visual style. What has prevented women’s film noirs from getting proper recognition is that both mass media and academic descriptions of film noir are devoted to “hardboiled.”

As a result, film noir is reduced to these kinds of essentials: the protagonist is male (e.g., an investigator, a criminal, a victim of circumstance); the literary source is hardboiled crime fiction; there is brutal violence (by fists and guns); the time and place is a contemporary U.S. city (e.g., not Victorian London or a family’s home).

This approach ignores the numerous published stories, novels and plays (or original screenplays) primarily addressing a female audience that were adapted into film noirs. It lavishes attention on the femme fatale and ignores the woman in distress, despite the latter’s equally strong presence in film noir.

Because the quantity and quality of women’s film noirs favorably compare to “hardboiled” (“men’s”) film noirs, until women’s film noirs are properly recognized, a comprehensive history and balanced analysis of film noir will be, by definition, impossible.

The noir style is repeatedly arresting in The Spiral Staircase. To take one example, after they kiss and Helen stands in profile at the front door watching Dr. Parry go into the rainstorm, the wall behind her is well lit.

She shuts the door and the light fades away, leaving her framed in blackness.

The image suggests the presence of danger. Also, by removing the natural background, her environment is re-made into one that is psychological, which superbly establishes the transition to her daydream of her wedding. (In the marriage ceremony, Albert is subtly revealed as the killer.)

Helen’s “affliction,” like Albert’s psychosis, is the result of trauma in childhood. Helen hasn’t been able to speak since she saw her parents perish in a fire. Albert’s father despised his sons as weaklings. Albert tells Helen that he, for one, has changed. “Steven is weak, as I once was. What a pity my father didn’t live to see me become strong.” Albert’s (foster) mother, Mrs. Warren, isn’t the kind of mother vilified by Philip Wylie in his Generation of Vipers. That is, The Spiral Staircase isn’t aimed at “momism.” (Ethel Barrymore, who plays Mrs. Warren, has the role of a possessive mother in Moss Rose.)

At the start of the film, Albert kills a lame woman. Her inability to walk “normally” recalls the late president, FDR, was a paralytic. In different ways, both Albert and his father recall the other Roosevelt, TR. Although sickly in his youth, Theodore Roosevelt made himself strong, as Albert wishes to do. Like Albert’s father, Roosevelt was a big-game hunter. (The portrait of Albert’s father, in hunting gear, which hangs above an elephant-tusk in Mrs. Warren’s bedroom, resembles Roosevelt.)

What links all three –­ TR, Albert’s father and Albert –­ is eugenics. Roosevelt was a major proponent of it. Albert violently practices it. In a monstrous way, Albert, too, is a hunter. Albert believes his father would have admired him for disposing of people his father detested, “the weak and imperfects.” Albert, it might be said, is afflicted with “dadism.”