Film Score: Roy Webb Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Starring: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore and Kent Smith
The Spiral Staircase is a leisurely historical thriller that is something of a cross between a suspense film and an old dark house mystery. Though the great Robert Siodmak does a nice job with the visuals in the film, it definitely lacks the kind of pacing that was evident in his films noir. The story was based on the novel by Ethel Lina White titled Some Must Watch from 1933, though she was also known for penning the novel that Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes was based on. The film, however, plods along, even with the threat of murder in the house, and has a difficult time sustaining anything like suspense. Still, it has a great cast and a nice score by RKO composer Roy Webb that gives it some interest.
The film takes place over a single evening in the house of George Brent. He is host to a variety of people, including a sick stepmother played by Ethel Barrymore and a stepbrother played by Gordon Oliver. This rather dysfunctional family has several servants who also live in the house, Elsa Lanchester and her husband Rhys Williams, a nurse, Sara Allgood, an assistant to the professor, Rhonda Flemming, and a personal assistant for Barrymore, Dorothy McGuire. The story is set in the late 1910s and begins with a murder at the local hotel, which also doubles as a movie theater. But this is a serial killer at work and this is his third victim, all of them with some mental or phsycal affliction. Since McGuire can’t speak, there is much speculation that she might be the next victim of the killer and everyone in the house is urged to watch out for her. But Barrymore goes one step further and insists that the local doctor, Kent Smith, take her away from the town forever.
The title comes from the staircase that leads down to the basement, the site of most of the scares in the film. At one point Elsa Lanchester goes down with Brent to get some brandy for Barrymore and she lets the candle go out in order to steal a bottle for herself. Another time Flemming goes down to get her suitcase so that she can leave along with everyone else. And, of course, the finale takes place on said stairs as well. It’s always great to see George Brent. He’s a consistent performer who began film work with the dawn of the sound era and made nearly a hundred films during his career, many at Warner Brothers. Dorothy McGuire, on the other hand, was appearing in in only her fourth feature, taking on this role after a successful performance in A Tree Grows in Booklyn. She has an interesting look, not really beautiful, and has an almost breathless style. My favorite of her performances is in Gentleman’s Agreement. Ultimately I found The Spiral Staircase to be something of a disappointment, though not enough of a disaster to call it a bad film and in the end it probably just comes down to a matter of taste.