Saturday, August 13, 2011
#178: The Spiral Staircase
Robert Siodmak was a German director who moved to Hollywood in 1939 during the time when Nazism was on the rise in Germany. Over the next 13 years, he would go on to make 23 movies in Hollywood, a prolific record by any standards before he returned to Europe. One of his most acclaimed films during his affair with Hollywood was The Spiral Staircase, a murder mystery that starred one of the first actresses of cinema-Ethel Barrymore.
The story is set in a small conservative county in America where there are only two doctors and even necessities like medical stores are spread far out and wide. Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a mute caretaker in the house of the Warrens is asked to be careful because a serial killer who attacks women with deformities is on the loose. While the killer murders a second disabled lady, the cops suspect him to strike the house of the Warrens where Helen could be an easy target. Dr. Parry a young and charming doctor who wants to cure Helen of her affliction visits the Warrens to see their ailing mother (Barrymore) and agrees to take Helen away on that very night to Boston to give her access to facilities that can cure her muteness. Professor Warren, the elder brother gives in to Dr. Parry's wish but at the same time Dr. Parry is summoned for another emergency. Whether or not Helen would survive the night till Dr. Parry returns is the crux of The Spiral Staircase.
Based on the book 'Some Must Watch' by Ethel White, the movie is a taut account of some gripping action of that stormy night where protagonist Helen unbeknownst to her must survive the killer on her trail. At 81 minutes, the fast-paced screenplay by Mel Dinelli reaches its denouement before your mind can even think of wandering anywhere. All good whodunnits should lead up to its resolution with biting tension and give its audience a gasp when the killer is revealed. And it is for this precise reason that the Spiral Staircase has been long recognized as classic in its genre. I suspect even Hitchcock might've enjoyed it.