October 29, 2018  (Web Review)

The Spiral Staircase

Kino, 83 min., not rated, DVD: $19.99, Blu-ray: $29.99

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Dorothy McGuire delivers a wonderful wordless performance as Helen, a lovely, cheerful mute servant who is terrorized by a killer in this 1946 classic from filmmaker Robert Siodmak. Set in mid-1910s New England and largely confined to a grand, shadowy old manor over the course of a single night, the film costars Ethel Barrymore (in prime regal form) as Mrs. Warren, a bedridden matriarch who implores Helen to leave the mansion she shares with her studious stepson (George Brent) and playboy son (Gordon Oliver). There’s a killer on the loose targeting “imperfect women,” as well as a roaring storm, a tippling housekeeper, and plenty of red herrings as the manor is slowly depopulated of protectors and Helen is unable to cry for help or scream in terror. A gothic thriller in the tradition of Rebecca and Gaslight, with a dollop of Freudian psychology and plenty of film noir style and attitude, The Spiral Staircase remains a great example of a modest genre picture that is elevated by the filmmakers. Siodmak is in top form, executing the monstrous murders in shadow while suggesting the terrible violence with grasping hands and flailing arms, and RKO house cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca enhances the atmosphere and tension with prowling camerawork and masterful lighting. McGuire is expressive and engaging, not just her eyes and facial expressions but also her body language, and Barrymore earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. Presented in a newly remastered edition, extras include audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith and a 1949 radio adaptation starring McGuire. Recommended. (S. Axmaker)