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Remind Me

Behind the Scenes on THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE

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