Saturday, October 20, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Spiral Staircase (1946) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

The RKO thriller THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946) has been released this month on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

It's rather amazing to me that this was my first time to see THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. It has a terrific cast, including Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, and Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore, and the behind-the-scenes talent is also excellent, including director Robert Siodmak, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and composer Roy Webb. Running a compact 83 minutes, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is a model suspense film.

McGuire plays Helen, left mute after the shock of a childhood tragedy. She works as a companion for wealthy, bedridden Mrs. Warren (Barrymore), who is simultaneously bossy and frail. Also living in the house are the Warren sons, Professor Albert Warren (Brent) and womanizing Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), who's been chasing after his older brother's secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming).

A serial killer in town is murdering young ladies with "imperfections," and it soon becomes clear that Helen, with her inability to speak, could be in danger. Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), who loves Helen, is determined to get her out of the Warrens' home; as he makes plans to leave with Helen he's called away to see a patient, after which he plans to return and take her away. But will she be alive when he returns?!

This film has tons of creepy atmosphere, starting with Helen's lonely walk home in the rain after spending her afternoon off at the movies. The scene is rather scary, even though the viewer knows that since the movie has just started she's got to live!

I've read descriptions of this film as the most Hitchcockian film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and I think it would certainly have to be on a short list of titles for that honor -- though at times it also seems tinged with overtones of Val Lewton. Helen's walk home will seem a bit familiar to anyone who's seen Lewton's THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), also released by RKO.

The Warrens' house itself is almost a character, containing not only the title staircase but seemingly endless hallways, rooms, and closets -- any one of which could be harboring the killer. But if so, shouldn't the dog pick up an unfamiliar scent? Hmmmmm...

Although I correctly guessed the identity of the killer, there are a couple pretty good red herrings which made me question things, just as Helen herself is fooled at one point. I also enjoyed the uncertainty about Barrymore's character -- is she genuinely intending to help Helen, or is it the ranting of a woman losing her mind?

McGuire is excellent in a largely nonverbal performance. Her final scene, appropriately conveying both horror and wondering joy, is a particularly great moment of catharsis for both Helen and the viewer.

The supporting cast also includes Sara Allgood, Elsa Lanchester, Rhys Williams, James Bell, Ellen Corby, and Myrna Dell.

Mel Dinelli's script was based on SOME MUST WATCH by Ethel Lina White.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a crisp, attractive print.

There's a nice selection of extras including a commentary track by Imogen Sara Smith, a Screen Directors Playhouse radio production, and the trailer, plus four additional trailers of films released by Kino Lorber. I have not yet had a chance to listen to the commentary track but have enjoyed Smith's work on other discs so I feel confident I will enjoy this one as well. I note that the Digital Bits website says her track is "a model of what Blu-ray commentary should be" so I'm particularly looking forward to listening to it soon.

Kino Lorber has also released THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE on DVD.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I enjoyed this one too! I also read the book, afterwards, and found that it's fascinatingly different from and similar to the movieā€”for instance, the book is set on the English/Welsh border at the time it was written, while the film is an American period piece. And in the book the heroine is not mute! But somehow, both are still recognizably the same story.

7:34 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I found The Spiral Staircase disappointingly sexless and I believe that goes to the male cast. Certainly an unusual part for George Brent, as was the same year's release of Temptation, which is not at all as well done, but flawed for the same reason. I suppose having Kent Smith the love interest was by design, but if so, I didn't buy the suit.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Elisabeth! So nice to hear from you. :) I saw a reference somewhere to the movie being different from the book so was very interested to read the details you filled in. Thank you!

Barrylane, the movie seemed more soulful than sexy...Kent Smith will never be an exciting leading man, but I found myself very touched by his final scene, when he's leaving and turns around and comes back and kisses Helen. That was quite lovely. I'm certainly a fan of Brent but he was definitely something of a cipher in this one. Where the movie really shone for me was in the performances of all the actresses and the wonderful atmosphere in the house -- excellent set design, cinematography and music.

Best wishes,

9:10 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

I love this movie and the book which I first read on a dark and stormy night. Perfect Gothic eeriness.

The sexlessness Barry mentions probably mostly has to do with Kent Smith who was one of the most damnably dull actors ever.

8:16 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Margot, yes, of course. I didn't care for Gordon Oliver either, a younger version of George Brent could have played that, but shifting him to Smith's part might have worked. if you need a job for Kent, cast him as the sexless murderer.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your feedback, Margot and Barrylane! Although I liked the scene I mentioned, I rather like the idea of flipping Brent and Smith's parts. I wonder if Smith could have brought enough to it, though...but maybe he'd surprise us!

Best wishes,

5:13 PM  

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