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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

David O. Selznick proved that he could put his stamp on a film even when he handed production over to another studio with The Spiral Staircase, a classic 1946 thriller that started out as a project he picked up for leading lady Ingrid Bergman. Hollywood history being what it is, neither Bergman nor Selznick wound up on the final product. Nonetheless the film bore the stamp of a Selznick production, combining lavish production values with a strong script and a sense of family, though this time the central family was torn apart by the presence of a deranged killer.

The story was adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, at the time a rival of Agatha Christie as a creator of thrillers, most notably The Lady Vanishes, which Alfred Hitchcock had filmed to great success in 1938. The novel underwent several changes en route to the screen. Originally it was set in contemporary England and depicted the battles of a lame servant girl to fight off a serial killer who targets women he considers "imperfect." In that form, it had inspired a popular radio play 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 that setting it in New England in 1906 would provide a more picturesque and threatening environment. While working through the plot elements, they found themselves backed into a logical corner as the killer menaced the heroine. "Why doesn't she just scream," Schary asked, which inspired them to change the character into an hysterical mute. To give the film a more visual climax, they borrowed the title setting from Mary Roberts Rinehart's novel The Circular Staircase, which had become a stage hit as The Bat. They even changed the title to The Spiral Staircase.

Then the project jumped studios. Selznick was in a financial crunch trying to finish work on Duel in the Sun (1946), which was way behind schedule and over budget. To raise funds, he sold several properties to RKO Studios, including The Farmer's Daughter, The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer and The Spiral Staircase, with Schary attached as producer. When Bergman passed on the project, Schary cast another Selznick discovery, Dorothy McGuire, who turned in what most critics consider her finest performance. Also from the Selznick contract list was Rhonda Fleming, cast as the secretary torn between the family's good and bad brothers.

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

Adding prestige to the production was the casting of Ethel Barrymore, "the first lady of the American stage," as the family matriarch. Barrymore loved 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 the summer 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 Is Green. For the finale, in which she drags herself out of bed in an effort 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 come down only for lunch at noon and at the end of the day to go home." She and Siodmak loved working together. He would later state that directing her was the highlight of the production, while she would say that he was the only director who created an atmosphere on set that came close to what she had 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. From then on, he would only direct prestige pictures until his return to Europe in the '50s. Sadly, the Motion Picture Academy® overlooked McGuire's performance, but Barrymore won a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. With the success of this and his other Selznick-initiated projects, Schary would be named head of RKO Studios in 1947, a position that led to his taking over MGM a few years later. Today, The Spiral Staircase is considered not just McGuire's, but also Siodmak's best work, and has become a television favorite, particularly at Halloween, when it still scares viewers looking for a break from the bloodier horrors of modern times.

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