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The Essentials - June 2008
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Pop Culture 101: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE

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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