Friday, January 9, 2009

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

In a small New England town, a serial killer appears to be on the loose. He targets women with some form of disability. Enter Helen Chapel (Dorothy McGuire) who is a woman who is unable to speak so that makes for a big disability. She works as a caretaker to ill and elderly Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Mrs. Warren's two sons live with her, Professor Warren (George Brent) and Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver). Mrs. Warren obviously believes one of her sons is the serial killer and wants Helen to get out of the house while she still can. Despite Mrs. Warren's pleadings, Helen does not leave. Since the house has a spiral staircase, it is a pretty good bet some kind of action is going to go down there.

Look at that gorgeous shot of Dorothy McGuire going down the Spiral Staircase.

The beginning of the movie starts with the rolling of the opening credits. However, instead of just rolling the opening credits, they show the star of the movie - the spiral staircase. They also show a woman creeping slowly down it. Then add in the super eerie music and a thunderstorm with lightning and all those sounds and with little effort the tone of the movie is totally set. Not to mention adding in an element of suspense and excitement. What a brilliant way to roll the credits. I loved it.

I always find films that take place real-time very interesting. What I mean by real-time, is that this film all transpires in one single afternoon/evening. It starts with a murder at the hotel where Helen had been watching a movie. She goes to Mrs. Warren's home where she lives and is terrorized that evening by the murderer. Also, I love a good suspense film and this fits nicely into that category. The director, Robert Siodmak, does a really good job setting up creepy and interesting shots using shadows. The music, the Gothic style, the creepy shots (the gigantic eye will give me nightmares later) all handily set up a great atmosphere for a suspense/thriller.

The performances are good, but no one particularly stands out. I enjoyed seeing George Brent again, a decade after his leading man good looks had gone a bit. Dorothy McGuire does a decent job of portraying her emotions without using words. The one that got me was good ol' Ethel. I don't know what it is about the Barrymores, but so far they just crack me up! Ethel is sick and can't move from her bed so she does all her acting with her eyes. While she tells Helen to flee the house she talks softly but keeps opening her eyes wide for emphasis, then that exhausts her so the eyes close a bit, but here they come again all wide. That is repeated a hundred times throughout the movie. Maybe I am hard on the Barrymores, but I have to say, in this movie she invented eye-size acting. Joan Fontaine invented eyebrow waggle acting and Monty Cliff invented brooding and sweating acting. I guess you have to be famous for something :-)

All in all, this was a good little suspense B-movie. I think the main flaw was the predictability - at least for me. It was pretty clear who the killer was and how it was going to climax and what would happen. However, even given that, I still recommend watching this one when you get a chance. If for no other reason than this movie falls into the category of being one of those great b&w movies that they just don't make anymore, sadly.


kda0121 said...

One way to see how good an actor really is, is to have them play a mute. It forces an actor to use all their skills beyond dialogue and get their point across. Dorothy McGuire is excellent at this. She captured all the innocence and fear inside her character and made her totally believable.

AbbyNormal said...

I agree that McGuire's portrayal of fear and innocence was really believeable. I only had one silly complaint about McGuire's performance. As I understood it, she was supposed to be in love with Dr. Parry and when she kissed him - there was nothing there. I don't know if she was trying to go WAY overboard on the innocence, but it seemed like she almost didn't care. So, the love between the two of them, from her side - wasn't believeable for me. Again, a minor, silly complaint given the enormity of her overall performance.

kda0121 said...

I will have to put this run in the DVD player and fast forward to the kiss. I don't recall the scene and am interested to see what my interpretation is.

AbbyNormal said...

Let me know. Maybe I am hard on any woman who doesn't practically jump a man when he kisses her. :-)