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The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase(1946)

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

SYNOPSIS

Helen, a young woman working in a mansion owned by bedridden Mrs. Warren, has been mute since she was a child and saw her parents burned to death in their home. Dr. Parry, the new young physician in town, is convinced she can be cured and plans to take her to Boston to see specialists. Before he can do so, he's called away on a medical emergency, leaving Helen at the mansion with her employer, the invalid's shady son, the old woman's stepson and his secretary, a cranky nurse, and a couple of untrustworthy servants. One by one, most of them leave the house for one reason or another. Outside, a thunderstorm rages and a deranged killer, who has been murdering disabled young women, is on the loose. When Helen finds the secretary dead in the basement at the bottom of the spiral staircase, she realizes the killer is in the house with her. But being mute, how will she signal for help?

Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Dore Schary
Screenplay: Mel Dinelli, based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: Harry Gerstad, Harry Marker
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Helen Capel), Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Warren), George Brent (Professor Warren), Kent Smith (Dr. Parry), Rhonda Fleming (Blanche), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Oates).
BW-84m.

Why THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is Essential

The Spiral Staircase could be a blueprint for constructing the standard gothic thriller. There is almost no device or clich of the genre left untouched in the course of its 84 minutes - an old dark house full of sinister noises and cobwebbed recesses, thunderstorms, banging shutters, menacing glances, dire warnings, candle-snuffing gusts of wind, doors and windows mysteriously opened or closed, and potential rescuers eliminated one by one, leaving the menaced heroine ever more vulnerable. Combining all of these clichs together and exploiting them for maximum effect with a first rate cast and crew, The Spiral Staircase created a sensation in its day. And the movie still holds a special allure for many viewers who remember it as one of their most frightening early movie experiences. Part of its effectiveness is due to offbeat visual touches - close-ups of the killer's stalking eye, subjective point-of-view shots, skewed camera angles, the use of multiple mirrors and painted portraits on the walls that stand as silent witnesses to the creepy occurrences.

Unlike films whose importance and appeal arises from their prominence in the career of a particular actor or director, The Spiral Staircase is a perfect example of the studio system operating at the peak of its power with strong producers putting their stamp on a project from the beginning and gathering the best talent to bring it to life. In this case, the project started out with that most exacting of producers, David O. Selznick, and many film analysts have said they can see his fingerprints all over the movie. From Selznick, the project passed into the hands of another strong-willed producer who was then just beginning to make a name for himself, Dore Schary. He pulled much of the cast and crew from RKO's highly creative B-picture unit to create a film that, from the first horrifying murder, rarely veers away from its mission to terrify.

If any one individual can be credited with what makes The Spiral Staircase essential, it wouldn't be the lead Dorothy McGuire (whose performance as a mute innocent stalked by a deranged killer was critically praised). Nor would it necessarily be producer Dore Schary or director Robert Siodmak (whose careers were boosted tremendously by this film's success). That distinction would more likely go to Nicholas Musuraca, one of the top cinematographers in his field. Musuraca's work here draws on the atmospheric effects he put to even greater use in such noted film noirs as Stranger on the Third Floor [1940] and Out of the Past [1947] and in the moody horror pictures of Val Lewton's legendary B unit at RKO (Cat People [1942], The Seventh Victim [1943]). His prowling camera, deep focus, and meticulously crafted lighting is what makes The Spiral Staircase an indelible viewing experience.

by Rob Nixon

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

The silent film that Dorothy McGuire's character watches at the beginning of The Spiral Staircase is D.W. Griffith's The Sands of Dee (1912). It is based on the poem by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) about a young woman who goes to call the cattle home "across the sands of Dee" but is drowned. The sign in the lobby of the hotel where the film is playing credits it as The Kiss, which has led some commentators to suggest that the clips used are actually from the 1914 film of that same title with William Desmond Taylor.

In 1961, NBC broadcast a televised version of The Spiral Staircase starring Elizabeth Montgomery, Lillian Gish, and Eddie Albert.

The Spiral Staircase was remade in England in 1975 with Jacqueline Bisset, Christopher Plummer, and Mildred Dunnock and again for American TV in 2000 with Nicollette Sheridan, Judd Nelson, and Holland Taylor.

Mel Dinelli's screenplay was adapted into a play by F. Andrew Leslie, who specialized in stage versions of movies, adapting either the novels from which the films were made or the screenplays themselves: Lilies of the Field, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Mr. Hobbs' Vacation, The Farmer's Daughter.

Ethel Lina White, who wrote Some Must Watch, the 1933 novel from which The Spiral Staircase was adapted, was at the time a rival of Agatha Christie as a creator of thrillers. Her novel The Wheel Spins was the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (1938), and White's Her Heart in Her Throat became The Unseen (1945). She is also credited with the story that was the source for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour TV series called "An Unlocked Window." The plot bears similarities to The Spiral Staircase: a serial killer stalks a nurse who is left alone with an invalid patient in an isolated country home.

Because of the popularity of The Spiral Staircase, future editions of White's novel carried the movie title instead of its original name.

Mary Roberts Rinehart's novel The Circular Staircase gave the producers a title suggestion for this film. Rinehart's thriller, which also involved a deranged killer and an old dark house, was adapted into a play and then a movie under the name The Bat; it was filmed in 1926 and again in 1959.

Vulnerable, disabled women preyed on by psychopaths have become something of a staple of suspense movies: blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), blind Uma Thurman in Jennifer Eight (1992), Mia Farrow (also blind) in Blind Terror/See No Evil (1971), deaf Marlee Matlin in Hear No Evil (1993), bedridden Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Olivia de Havilland (recovering from a broken hip) in Lady in a Cage (1964), paralyzed Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

by Rob Nixon

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Robert Siodmak got his start in motion pictures as co-writer/co-director of the film Menschen am Sonntag (1930), which also marked the career beginnings of his colleagues Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, and brother Kurt Siodmak. Like his colleagues, he left Germany as the Nazis came to power and eventually ended up in Hollywood.

Although he often worked in low-budget films, Nicholas Musuraca is recognized as one of the great cinematographers. His most notable work was as director of photography for many of the remarkable psychological horror films produced by Val Lewton in his tenure as head of his own B unit at RKO: Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Bedlam (1946). His moody, chiaroscuro style perfectly suited him for a number of movies in the film noir genre (notably Out of the Past, 1947), but his only award recognition was an Oscar® nomination for I Remember Mama (1948).

Nominated seven times for Academy Awards, Roy Webb was one of Hollywood's busiest film scorers, working on close to 300 films between 1930 and 1958. He also worked in the Val Lewton unit, composing music for eight of those films. He also contributed to a number of major releases, including My Favorite Wife (1940), I Remember Mama, and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).

Elsa Lanchester, who plays the brandy-swigging Mrs. Oates, was the wife of Charles Laughton. A welcome character player in many films, she is best remembered as the Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Irish-born George Brent was a sought-after leading man in dozens of pictures opposite such high-powered female stars as Myrna Loy, Ruth Chatterton (to whom he was briefly married), Greta Garbo, and most frequently, Bette Davis (eleven films together). His dashing leading man days were almost behind him by the time he appeared in The Spiral Staircase, but he still managed to squire Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, and Merle Oberon in later films.

Part of the legendary acting family and a stage star from her teen years in the 1890s, Ethel Barrymore made her film debut in 1914 at the age of 35 in The Nightingale. She made a handful of silents over the next dozen years, but preferred working on the stage to acting in movies, especially after her unpleasant experience on her first talkie, Rasputin and the Empress (1932). She returned a dozen years later, winning a best Supporting Actress Academy Award® for None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and racking up three more nominations in the coming years (including one for this picture). So when the general public recalls this acclaimed actress, it is usually as a woman in her 70s and older.

This was Mel Dinelli's first screenplay. He went on to write several notable films that fall into the film noir category, including The Window (1949), The Reckless Moment (1949), and Beware, My Lovely (1952). He also wrote radio and television scripts and plays for the stage.

According to rumor, Joan Crawford, after receiving critical praise for her role as a horribly disfigured criminal in A Woman's Face (1941), campaigned for the role of the mute girl, but MGM boss Louis B. Mayer vehemently opposed the idea, telling her, "No more cripples or maimed women."

The Spiral Staircase was a big commercial success, bringing in more than $1.5 million at the box office (some reports credit close to $3 million in U.S.-Canadian rentals).

Memorable Quotes from THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE

MRS. OATES (Elsa Lanchester): First there was the girl with the scar on her face, then that poor simple-minded creature, now this cripple.

NURSE BARKER (Sara Allgood): Even with her eyes shut she seems to be watching you like an evil spirit.

MRS. WARREN (Ethel Barrymore): You should run away. Leave this house tonight, if you know what's good for you.

MRS. OATES: Where's my brandy?
MR. OATES (Rhys Williams): I finished it for your own good.

MRS. WARREN: Get Helen out of this house! ... Take her away tonight.

STEPHEN WARREN (Gordon Oliver): Men like to see women cry. Makes them feel superior.

MRS. WARREN: You must go away. Leave this house. ... If you won't, you must do as I tell you. Get under the bed. ... Why won't you listen to me? Why won't anyone listen to me?

PROFESSOR WARREN (George Brent): Remember what I told you. Don't trust anyone.

MRS. WARREN: If you won't leave this house as I've asked you to, you must sleep in this room tonight. Don't be afraid of me. I want to take care of you. You see, you're not safe, my dear.

MRS. WARREN: There's always trouble when you come, Stephen. Why don't you stay away?

STEPHEN WARREN: You and I, the meek, have inherited the earth.

MR. OATES: Murder's like a million dollar lottery. ... You pick up the newspaper, you see someone's picture who's won a million dollars. You pick up another paper and there's a picture of someone who's been murdered. It's never me, it's never you.

MRS. WARREN: He told me I wasn't as beautiful as his first wife. But I was a much better shot. The only kind of beauty he had any respect for was strength. And he had two sons, both weaklings.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

The Spiral Staircase was adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who rivaled Agatha Christie in the lucrative thriller field. The book was set in contemporary England, and its central character was a lame servant girl menaced by a serial killer who targets women he considers "imperfect." Its story was virtually kept intact when it was adapted into a radio play starring Helen Hayes.

David O. Selznick picked up the property as a potential project for his biggest contracted star, Ingrid Bergman.

Strapped for money he needed to complete his epic Western Duel in the Sun (1946), Selznick sold the rights to Some Must Watch and several others (including The Farmer's Daughter [1947] and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer [1947]) to RKO. Under the terms of that agreement, Selznick got a cut of the movie's future earnings and furnished the services of producer Dore Schary.

Schary, who was an Academy Award®-winning screenwriter (Boys Town [1938]) before moving to producing, brought in a first-time scripter, Mel Dinelli, to adapt the novel to the screen. At this point, it was known by its working titles "Some Must Watch" and "The Silence of Helen McCord."

During story conferences, Schary and Dinelli changed the setting to turn-of-the-century New England, which they thought would not only be more picturesque but would give it a more threatening gothic atmosphere. They still had to solve one issue that troubled them about the terrified heroine. "Why doesn't she just scream?" Schary asked, inspiring them to change the character from lame to mute.

According to some reports, Helen Hayes also had a hand in shaping the new character and setting due to her success in the radio play.

Looking at visual possibilities, particularly for the tense climax, Schary and Dinelli borrowed elements of the setting and title of Mary Roberts Rinehart's novel The Circular Staircase.

By the time Selznick sold the property, Ingrid Bergman had passed on it, so Schary cast another Selznick discovery, Dorothy McGuire. He also brought in Rhonda Fleming from the Selznick roster to play the secretary torn between the two half brothers in the story.

Siodmak was loaned to RKO for The Spiral Staircase. The German-born director had been working at Universal where he brought his country's characteristic Expressionist style to such thrillers as Phantom Lady (1944), The Suspect (1944), and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). His skills in the genre made him a natural choice for this assignment.

Ethel Barrymore was in talks with RKO to star in a film of Frank Baker's supernatural novel Miss Hargreaves, but the project was shelved, leaving her available to accept the part of the invalid Mrs. Warren.

George Brent, a much sought-after leading man for a number of years, had just signed a lucrative two-picture deal with RKO. The Spiral Staircase became the first project under that contract.

by Rob Nixon

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Nicholas Musuraca, who was under contract to RKO, was assigned to shoot The Spiral Staircase largely on the basis of the dark and moody work he had been doing as the top cinematographer for Val Lewton's B horror unit. Largely responsible for the look of such Lewton-produced films as Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943), this was a rare opportunity for Musuraca to work on a top-budgeted production.

Among the many notable effects Musuraca brought to The Spiral Staircase was a shot of eerie shadows cast by the wrought iron fence surrounding the house. Musuraca shot at a low angle to emphasize the fence and lit it from behind and within to get the deep shadows.

In addition to Musuraca, other technicians and players were pulled from Lewton's unit for The Spiral Staircase, including composer Roy Webb, costume designer Edward Stevenson, and actor Kent Smith, the leading man of Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People (1944).

Close-ups of the eyes and gloved hands of the killer as he stalks and strikes his victims were actually those of director Robert Siodmak. This was done primarily to conceal the real killer's identity.

The ornate Victorian-style mansion featured in The Spiral Staircase was constructed entirely on the studio lot.

The film was shot from mid-August to mid-October 1945. Assistant director Harry Scott died on October 10 while working on the film.

Ethel Barrymore had only recently returned to pictures after an absence of almost twelve years. Her experiences in Hollywood, particularly on Rasputin and the Empress (1932), a historical drama featuring her and brothers John and Lionel, were not positive, and she made only one other sound picture after that, a short called All at Sea (1933), before going happily back to the stage. She was lured back in front of the camera to co-star with Cary Grant in None But the Lonely Heart (1944), which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award®. "It's still a rather strange place," she noted of Hollywood. "But they've grown up. When I made Rasputin and the Empress out here years ago they kept shoving me my dialogue on the backs of old envelopes. Now they do things right."

Barrymore was pleased with the cast that was assembled for The Spiral Staircase. She had worked with both Kent Smith and Rhys Williams (cast as the caretaker Mr. Oates) in stock. Besides Dorothy McGuire, there were several other actors on board whom she admired, including George Brent, Elsa Lanchester, and Sara Allgood from Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre.

Barrymore had her own "old dark house" to contend with during the production of The Spiral Staircase. She had rented a small cottage, too tiny to even accommodate servants, secluded in Laurel Canyon. "I was alone, I was terrified. But I just pretended I wasn't there," she said.

Despite her nervousness in her rented home, Barrymore enjoyed time away from the set with her son and close friends, particularly her old friend Somerset Maugham, who was in town working on the adaptation of his book The Razor's Edge (1946). The two spent many afternoons watching movies in various screening rooms around town.

Barrymore spent almost her entire time on the set in bed. The exception was the final scene, for which she had to climb to the top of a 50-foot platform that constituted the spiral staircase of the title. "I have a cozy little retreat up here on my platform, so I just stay here," she remarked. "Between takes they serve me tea. I come down only for lunch at noon and at the end of the day to go home."

For a scene in which her character, alleged to be a crack shot, fires a Colt automatic pistol, Siodmak told Barrymore she could use both hands to clutch the gun. "Have you forgotten I'm supposed to be a great hunter?" she replied, firing with one hand.

Barrymore and Siodmak loved working together. He would later state that directing her was the highlight of the production and twenty years later remarked, " I'm still grateful to Staircase for giving me a chance to know 'Ethel B.'" She said he was the only director who created an atmosphere on set that came close to what she had enjoyed as a stage star.

The whole experience was a happy one for Siodmak, especially because he was able to supervise the editing of The Spiral Staircase himself. "There was a strike going on in Hollywood when I was cutting Staircase, so they let me alone," he said.

Although rarely noted in discussions of the film, a significant contribution was made by John L. Cass and Terry Kellum of the RKO sound department, who filled the long dialogue-free passages with such chilling sound effects as footsteps, animals moving through brush, banging shutters and doors, and of course, the ever-rumbling thunder and downpour of rain.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Spiral Staircase (1946)

David O. Selznick proved that he could put his stamp on a film even when hehanded production over to another studio with The Spiral Staircase,a classic 1946 thriller that started out as a project he picked up forleading lady Ingrid Bergman. Hollywood history being what it is, neitherBergman nor Selznick wound up on the final product. Nonetheless the filmbore the stamp of a Selznick production, combining lavish production valueswith a strong script and a sense of family, though this time the centralfamily was torn apart by the presence of a deranged killer.

The story was adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel LinaWhite, at the time a rival of Agatha Christie as a creator of thrillers,most notably The Lady Vanishes, which Alfred Hitchcock had filmed togreat success in 1938. The novel underwent several changes en route to thescreen. Originally it was set in contemporary England and depicted thebattles of a lame servant girl to fight off a serial killer who targets womenhe considers "imperfect." In that form, it had inspired a popular radioplay starring Helen Hayes.

Selznick picked the story up for the movies and assigned Dore Schary to produce it for him. During story conferences, Schary and writer Mel Dinelli, who would go on to write such classic films noir as House by the River (1950) and The Window (1949), decided thatsetting it in New England in 1906 would provide a more picturesque andthreatening environment. While working through the plot elements, theyfound themselves backed into a logical corner as the killer menaced theheroine. "Why doesn't she just scream," Schary asked, which inspired themto change the character into an hysterical mute. To give the film a morevisual climax, they borrowed the title setting from Mary Roberts Rinehart'snovel The Circular Staircase, which had become a stage hit as TheBat. They even changed the title to The Spiral Staircase.

Then the project jumped studios. Selznick was in a financial crunch tryingto finish work on Duel in the Sun (1946), which was way behind schedule andover budget. To raise funds, he sold several properties to RKO Studios,including The Farmer's Daughter, The Bachelor and theBobbysoxer and The Spiral Staircase, with Schary attached asproducer. When Bergman passed on the project, Schary cast another Selznickdiscovery, Dorothy McGuire, who turned in what most critics consider herfinest performance. Also from the Selznick contract list was RhondaFleming, cast as the secretary torn between the family's good and badbrothers.

To direct, Schary hired Robert Siodmak, a German (though he was born whilehis parents were visiting Memphis, Tenn.) who had fled Europe just beforeHitler took Paris and churned out a series of acclaimed thrillers atUniversal Pictures, including Phantom Lady (1944) and ChristmasHoliday (1944). RKO had turned a nice profit with a series of low-budgethorror films (Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie, 1943)produced by another one-time Selznick associate, Val Lewton. This timeout, they gambled on a larger budget and won. Lewton's top cameraman,Nicholas Musuraca, worked with Siodmak to create a series of memorableexpressionistic effects as a storm plunged the mansion into darknessthrough which the killer stalked McGuire.

Adding prestige to the production was the casting of Ethel Barrymore, "thefirst lady of the American stage," as the family matriarch. Barrymoreloved spending most of the film in bed to play the invalid and quickly grasped her character's sense of mounting terror. She had rented a small, secluded house for thesummer and suffered many lonely, tense nights staying there by herself.And she was impressed to be working with a cast of stage veterans,including Rhys Williams, who had worked with her in The Corn IsGreen. For the finale, in which she drags herself out of bed in aneffort to save McGuire, she spent several days shooting at the top of a three- story staircase. "I have a cozy little retreat up here on my platform,"she said, "so I just stay here. Between scenes they serve me tea. I comedown only for lunch at noon and at the end of the day to go home." She andSiodmak loved working together. He would later state that directing herwas the highlight of the production, while she would say that he was theonly director who created an atmosphere on set that came close to what shehad enjoyed as a stage star.

The Spiral Staircase was a financial winner, bringing in more than$1 million at the box office. It made Siodmak's name in Hollywood. Fromthen on, he would only direct prestige pictures until his return to Europein the '50s. Sadly, the Motion Picture Academy® overlooked McGuire'sperformance, but Barrymore won a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.With the success of this and his other Selznick-initiated projects, Scharywould be named head of RKO Studios in 1947, a position that led to histaking over MGM a few years later. Today, The Spiral Staircase isconsidered not just McGuire's, but also Siodmak's best work, and has becomea television favorite, particularly at Halloween, when it still scaresviewers looking for a break from the bloodier horrors of moderntimes.

Producer: Dore Schary
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Mel Dinelli
Based on the Novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Helen Capel), George Brent (Prof. Warren),Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Warren), Kent Smith (Dr. Parry), Rhonda Fleming(Blanche), Gordon Oliver (Steve Warren), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Oates),Ellen Corby (Neighbor), Sara Allgood (Nurse Barker), Rhys Williams (Mr.Oates).
BW-84m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Awards and Honors

Ethel Barrymore was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for The Spiral Staircase.

Robert Siodmak received a citation from Cosmopolitan as Film Director of the Month for January 1946.

Critics Corner: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE

"Director Robert Siodmak has retained a feeling for terror throughout the film by smart photography, camera angles, and sudden shifts of camera emphasis, abetted in this job by a choice performance of his cast. Film lacks the leaven of a little humor, but interest never wanes."
Variety, January 9, 1946.

"Even though you are conscious that the tension is being built by obvious trickery, the effect is nonetheless telling. ... As a mute serving-girl in a sinister household, where family hatreds are deep and searing, Miss McGuire gives a remarkably lucid performance in pantomime. Her characterization of one who senses a dread shadow hovering over her but is incapable of communicating her fears is restrained and effectively pathetic. In this day of much talk on the screen, few actresses would dare to undertake a role which only permitted six words of speech. Miss McGuire is to be heartily commended for her adventurousness and the high degree of resourcefulness with which she has tackled the demanding and little-used art of pantomime."
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, February 7, 1946.

"While it is a strong film with several fine Siodmakian touchesthe colorful minor characters and the distorted mirror shots on the stair landing in particularin many ways it is less a reflection of Siodmak than of David O. Selznick. There are none of the subtle, bittersweet touches of character or plot twists that characterize Siodmak's better works, nor is Siodmak's major theme of personal obsession explored beyond that of a killer's motive."
Deborah Lazaroff Alpi, Robert Siodmak: A Biography (McFarland & Co., 1998).

"It has all the trappings of the genre...but the psychopaths are quite presentable people, and this, plus the skillful, swift direction, makes the terror convincing."
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt and Co., 1984).

"The Spiral Staircase is truly frightening and extracts every ounce of tension from Dorothy McGuire as a deaf-mute [sic]."
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

"Superb thriller...Hitchcock couldn't have bettered the causal mastery with which the opening defines not just time and place...but the themes of voyeurism and entrapment...It's one of the undoubted masterpieces of the Gothic mode, even if the happy ending comes more than a shade too pat."
- Tom Milne, TimeOut Film Guide

"Archetypal old dark house thriller, superbly detailed and set during a most convincing thunderstorm. Even though the identity of the villain is pretty obvious, this is a superior Hollywood product."
- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide

"The Spiral Staircase may be better fun to see than Bedlam, but I feel it has been overrated. It entirely lacks the mental excitement which Bedlam at least tries for. Even though she plays it well, I am not impressed by Dorothy McGuire - or anyone else - stunting along through several reels as a suffering mute; nor am I willingly hornswoggled by Ethel Barrymore's unprincipled use of her lighthouse eyes, wonderful as they are. Still, the movie is visually clever..."
- James Agee

"One of the vintage RKO thrillers, with a reliable cast directed with stealth and an intermittent sense of domestic humour."
- Peter Cowie, Eighty Years of Cinema

"Superb Hitchcock-like thriller with unforgettable performance by McGuire."
- Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

by Rob Nixon

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