The Spiral Staircase


1h 23m 1946

Brief Synopsis

A serial killer stalks a mute servant girl in a remote mansion.

Film Details

Also Known As
Some Must Watch, The Silence of Helen McCord
Genre
Thriller
Release Date
Jan 1946
Premiere Information
New York opening: week of 7 Feb 1946
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.; Vanguard Films, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (New York, 1941).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7,516ft

Synopsis

In a small New England town in 1906, Helen McCord, a mute maid-servant, goes to see a moving picture on her day off. Just as the film ends, a crash is heard in the room upstairs, and when the projectionist runs up the stairs to investigate, he discovers the body of a lame girl strangled to death. The girl is the latest victim in a series of murders whose victims are all women suffering from physical imperfections. When Dr. Brian Parry, the new physician in town, arrives to examine the body, he is challenged by Dr. Harvey, the town's established doctor and Parry's professional rival. After Parry and Harvey argue, Parry offers to drive Helen to the house of Mrs. Warren, her invalid employer. Along the way, Parry encourages Helen to try and regain her voice. His expression of concern is interrupted when a young boy appears in the road and pleads with the doctor to examine his mother. As a storm brews, Parry leaves Helen to walk home alone while he drives off with the boy. As Helen approaches the house, it begins to pour, and she drops her keys while a man watches her from behind some bushes. After unlocking the door, Helen begins to climb the stairs to Mrs. Warren's bedroom. The figure of a man watches her from the stairway as she pauses to study her reflection in the mirror. When Helen enters Mrs. Warren's room, her bedridden employer warns her that she is not safe in the house and cautions her to leave immediately. Soon after, the constable appears at the house to inform Professor Albert Warren, Mrs. Warren's stepson, that the murderer is in the vicinity, but the professor reassures Helen that he will protect her. As the others concern themselves with the murderer, Steve Warren, Mrs. Warren's ne'er-do-well son who has just returned from Europe, romances Blanche, his mother's secretary. When Mrs. Warren suffers a relapse, Helen brings Steve to her bedside, and he revives her with ether. After he leaves the room, Mrs. Warren laments his return, claiming that trouble is his constant companion. Meanwhile, downstairs, the professor criticizes Steve's lack of responsibility and Steve accuses him of being jealous over his relationship with Blanche. Soon after, Dr. Parry, summoned by Mrs. Warren, comes to the house. In the privacy of her bedroom, Mrs. Warren confides to the doctor that his strength reminds her of her late husband, who detested his sons because he considered them to be weaklings. Fearing for Helen's safety, Mrs. Warren demands that Parry take her away that night. After consenting to her demands, Parry prescribes ether for his patient. The ether has mysteriously disappeared, however, and so the professor sends Oates, one of the servants, to the village for a new supply. To provide a stimulant for his stepmother's weakened condition, the professor, accompanied by Mrs. Oates, the housekeeper, descends to the cellar for a bottle of brandy. While they are there, Mrs. Oates, who is fond of alcohol, steals a bottle for herself. After treating Mrs. Warren, Parry insists that Helen leave the house with him that night and accompany him to Boston to see a specialist. Parry reveals to Helen that he knows that her muteness was caused by the trauma of watching her mother and father burn to death when she was a girl. Parry is interrupted by Steve, who cynically questions his concern for Helen. Before he can leave with Helen, however, the doctor is called away to care for the Wilson boy . Handing Helen a piece of paper with the Wilsons' phone number written on it, Parry tells her he will return later. After he departs, Helen fantasizes about marrying the doctor but being unable to speak the words "I do" during their wedding ceremony. Later, Blanche confides her unhappiness to Steve, and when he responds with taunts and threats, boasting that he likes to see women cry, she decides to leave with Helen. On her way to the cellar to fetch her suitcase, Blanche sees Mrs. Oates passed out in the kitchen, drunk. In the cellar, Blanche is startled by the sound of the howling wind but is comforted when she glimpses a familiar face. Her reassurance melts into terror, however, when the figure steps from the shadows and strangles her. Meanwhile, upstairs, Barker, Mrs. Warren's nurse, who is fed up with her employer's abuse, quits and the professor asks Steve to harness the horses and drive her into town. The professor then asks Helen to relay a message to Blanche, and when Helen descends to the cellar, she finds Blanche's body. Startled by Steve's sudden appearance in the cellar, Helen, certain that he is the murderer, locks the door and runs upstairs. Pulling the Wilsons' phone number from her pocket, Helen picks up the phone receiver but is unable to repeat the number to the operator. Finding the professor in the hallway, Helen hastily scribbles a note reporting Steve's murder of Blanche. Under the pretense of taking Helen to safety in his mother's room, the professor escorts her up the stairs, stopping in front of the mirror. Demanding that Helen look at her reflection, which has no mouth, the professor calmly announces that he is going to kill her because there is no room for imperfection. After recounting that the missing ether, Mrs. Oates's drunken state and Blanche's murder are all part of his premeditated scheme, the professor boasts that he plans to eliminate all the weakness and imperfection that his father detested. Shaking free of her persecutor, Helen runs into Mrs. Warren's room and tries to awaken the sleeping invalid. Just then, the constable knocks at the front door with news that Parry is unable to leave the Wilson boy. As the constable returns to his carriage, Helen pounds at the window, but he mistakes the sound for the banging of a gate and drives away. Helen then runs down to the cellar to free Steve, but sensing that the professor is waiting for her, she climbs back up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, Mrs. Warren waits, gun in hand, and shoots her stepson, causing Helen to scream at the sound of the shots. Mrs. Warren then sends her to get Steve and when he appears, she begs his forgiveness, explaining that she thought he was the murderer because the professor only killed when his half-brother returned home. When his mother collapses, Steve tells Helen to call Parry. Helen walks to the phone, picks up the receiver and recites the number.

Photo Collections

The Spiral Staircase - Movie Poster
Here is the American One-Sheet Movie Poster for The Spiral Staircase (1945), starring Dorothy McGuire. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.

Film Details

Also Known As
Some Must Watch, The Silence of Helen McCord
Genre
Thriller
Release Date
Jan 1946
Premiere Information
New York opening: week of 7 Feb 1946
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.; Vanguard Films, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (New York, 1941).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
7,516ft

Award Nominations

Best Supporting Actress

1947
Ethel Barrymore

Articles

The Essentials - The Spiral Staircase


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 cliché 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 clichés 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
The Essentials - The Spiral Staircase

The Essentials - The Spiral Staircase

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 cliché 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 clichés 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

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

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

Trivia - The Spiral Staircase - Trivia & Fun Facts About THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE


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

Trivia - The Spiral Staircase - Trivia & Fun Facts About THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE

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

The Big Idea - The Spiral Staircase


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

The Big Idea - The Spiral Staircase

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

Behind the Camera - The Spiral Staircase - 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

Behind the Camera - The Spiral Staircase - 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

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

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

Critics' Corner - The Spiral Staircase


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 touches––the colorful minor characters and the distorted mirror shots on the stair landing in particular––in 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

Critics' Corner - The Spiral Staircase

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 touches––the colorful minor characters and the distorted mirror shots on the stair landing in particular––in 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

The Spiral Staircase - The 1946 version on DVD


The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a compact thriller set in turn-of-the-century New England. Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen, a young mute working as a servant in a gothic mansion dominated by dying matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, in an Oscar®-nominated performance). The lumbering residence lies on the outskirts of a small town being terrorized by a serial killer who is preying exclusively on disabled women.

Among the inmates of the mansion are Mrs. Warren's weak but kindly stepson Professor Warren (George Brent), her wastrel son Steven (Gordon Oliver), whose recent return has coincided with the onset of the murders; and the professor's secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who is being romanced by Steven. The staff is rounded out by cook/housekeeper and her husband, Mr and Mrs. Oates (Elsa Lanchester and Rhys Williams). All of the members of the household are solicitous of Helen's safety, believing that her infirmity will make her a natural target for the murderer, and caution her not to venture outside the house. And they have reason to be concerned, because it's clear from very early on that Helen will be the next victim.

While the others worry about the danger outside, Mrs. Warren is convinced that the real danger lies within, and begs Helen to leave the house at once, entreating her physician Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) to remove Helen for her own good: a request with which the doctor, who has more than a passing interest in the young woman, is all too willing to comply. But when Parry's return to retrieve Helen is delayed, and the inhabitants of the household are forced to depart one by one (either by choice or design), Helen is left at the mercy of the killer.

Adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (whose book The Wheel Spins would be the basis for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes), The Spiral Staircase is an expertly crafted thriller, establishing its ominous tone quickly and effortlessly, and maintaining it until the emotionally shattering conclusion. Director Robert Siodmak (Son of Dracula, The Killers) fills the screen with startling images, including the opening murder of a lame girl that focuses on her clutching hands, then cuts to Helen's hands as they clutch at a handkerchief while watching a silent film in the parlor below, visually establishing a link between victim and potential victim. Though the action quickly moves to the claustrophobic confines of the mansion, Siodmak and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca make brilliant use of shadow and light to accentuate the mounting tension: i.e., the deepening darkness in the cellar; the sudden wind that extinguishes a lamp and plunges Helen into darkness as she desperately tries to signal a constable; and the railings of the all-important spiral staircase thrown into relief on the back wall so that the resemble prison bars as Helen's situation becomes more dire.

McGuire gives one of her most affecting performances as Helen. She strikes just the right balance of reticence and frustration, making her infirmity thoroughly believable. Her attempts to speak as the danger escalates are so compelling they touch something primal: the nightmare fear of being confronted with the terrifying and unable to scream. Without dialogue, McGuire has the daunting task of conveying all of Helen's emotions through her eyes, expressions, and movements, and McGuire handles this with an amazing degree of subtlety, never over-playing her hand and betraying the artistry behind the performance. Barrymore provides one of her wiliest turns as the cunning old woman who fears for Helen's safety. Bed-ridden through the film, Barrymore wrings the most out of her dialogue, punctuating it with a flash of her regal eyes and a wry twist to her lips. If the performances of the men in the cast seem more workmanlike in comparison, it's mainly due to being given the thankless task of portraying the suspects who, through the machinations of the plot, are unable to reveal much about themselves.

Sony's new DVD (from their recent acquisition of MGM) is the film's second incarnation in the format, following Anchor Bay's release in 2000 (now out of print). Visually the new transfer represents an improvement over the earlier release, with a sharper image, a deeper black level and more clearly defined shadings. The audio is showing minor deterioration throughout, which does not significantly impact on the viewing experience.

For more information about The Spiral Staircase, visit MGM. To order The Spiral Staircase, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter

The Spiral Staircase - The 1946 version on DVD

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a compact thriller set in turn-of-the-century New England. Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen, a young mute working as a servant in a gothic mansion dominated by dying matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, in an Oscar®-nominated performance). The lumbering residence lies on the outskirts of a small town being terrorized by a serial killer who is preying exclusively on disabled women. Among the inmates of the mansion are Mrs. Warren's weak but kindly stepson Professor Warren (George Brent), her wastrel son Steven (Gordon Oliver), whose recent return has coincided with the onset of the murders; and the professor's secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who is being romanced by Steven. The staff is rounded out by cook/housekeeper and her husband, Mr and Mrs. Oates (Elsa Lanchester and Rhys Williams). All of the members of the household are solicitous of Helen's safety, believing that her infirmity will make her a natural target for the murderer, and caution her not to venture outside the house. And they have reason to be concerned, because it's clear from very early on that Helen will be the next victim. While the others worry about the danger outside, Mrs. Warren is convinced that the real danger lies within, and begs Helen to leave the house at once, entreating her physician Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) to remove Helen for her own good: a request with which the doctor, who has more than a passing interest in the young woman, is all too willing to comply. But when Parry's return to retrieve Helen is delayed, and the inhabitants of the household are forced to depart one by one (either by choice or design), Helen is left at the mercy of the killer. Adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (whose book The Wheel Spins would be the basis for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes), The Spiral Staircase is an expertly crafted thriller, establishing its ominous tone quickly and effortlessly, and maintaining it until the emotionally shattering conclusion. Director Robert Siodmak (Son of Dracula, The Killers) fills the screen with startling images, including the opening murder of a lame girl that focuses on her clutching hands, then cuts to Helen's hands as they clutch at a handkerchief while watching a silent film in the parlor below, visually establishing a link between victim and potential victim. Though the action quickly moves to the claustrophobic confines of the mansion, Siodmak and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca make brilliant use of shadow and light to accentuate the mounting tension: i.e., the deepening darkness in the cellar; the sudden wind that extinguishes a lamp and plunges Helen into darkness as she desperately tries to signal a constable; and the railings of the all-important spiral staircase thrown into relief on the back wall so that the resemble prison bars as Helen's situation becomes more dire. McGuire gives one of her most affecting performances as Helen. She strikes just the right balance of reticence and frustration, making her infirmity thoroughly believable. Her attempts to speak as the danger escalates are so compelling they touch something primal: the nightmare fear of being confronted with the terrifying and unable to scream. Without dialogue, McGuire has the daunting task of conveying all of Helen's emotions through her eyes, expressions, and movements, and McGuire handles this with an amazing degree of subtlety, never over-playing her hand and betraying the artistry behind the performance. Barrymore provides one of her wiliest turns as the cunning old woman who fears for Helen's safety. Bed-ridden through the film, Barrymore wrings the most out of her dialogue, punctuating it with a flash of her regal eyes and a wry twist to her lips. If the performances of the men in the cast seem more workmanlike in comparison, it's mainly due to being given the thankless task of portraying the suspects who, through the machinations of the plot, are unable to reveal much about themselves. Sony's new DVD (from their recent acquisition of MGM) is the film's second incarnation in the format, following Anchor Bay's release in 2000 (now out of print). Visually the new transfer represents an improvement over the earlier release, with a sharper image, a deeper black level and more clearly defined shadings. The audio is showing minor deterioration throughout, which does not significantly impact on the viewing experience. For more information about The Spiral Staircase, visit MGM. To order The Spiral Staircase, go to TCM Shopping. by Fred Hunter

Quotes

She's dead!
- Constable
Well, in that case, Constable, I certainly can't do her any harm.
- Dr. Parry

Trivia

Notes

The working titles of this film were The Silence of Helen McCord and Some Must Watch. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, RKO acquired the rights to Ethel Lina White's novel from David O. Selznick's Vanguard Films. In a memo reproduced in a modern source, Selznick states that the literary rights were part of a package sold to RKO under a partnership agreement between the studio and Vanguard. According to the terms of that agreement, Selznick furnished the novel and the services of producer Dore Schary, director Robert Siodmak and stars Dorothy McGuire and Ethel Barrymore in exchange for a split of the profits. In a modern interview, McGuire stated that the eye seen in close-up in the film, supposed to be that of "Professor Albert Warren" (George Brent), was actually that of director Robert Siodmak.
       Barrymore was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work on this picture. Assistant director Harry Scott died on October 10, 1945, while working on the film. The 1975 British film The Spiral Staircase, starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Plummer and directed by Peter Collinson, was also based on White's novel. In 1961, NBC broadcast a televised version of White's novel titled The Spiral Staircase, starring Lillian Gish, Gig Young and Eddie Albert and directed by Boris Sagal. Another adaptation of the novel was broadcast on the Fox Family Channel in 2000. That version starred Nicolette Sheridan and Judd Nelson and was directed by James Head.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States March 1979

Released in United States Winter December 1945

Released in United States March 1979 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The 50-Hour Mighty MovieMarathon: Mystery and Suspense) March 14-30, 1979.)

Released in United States Winter December 1945