Step Down to Terror


1h 15m 1958

Brief Synopsis

Pursued by detectives, Johnny Walters leaves the city to visit his family in a small California town. Among the household: his dead brother's luscious widow Helen, who soon is attracted to him. Ominous events and conflicting evidence leave Helen suspicious, but uncertain about her brother-in-law as tension builds...

Film Details

Release Date
Nov 1958
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Universal-International Pictures Co., Inc.
Distribution Company
Universal Pictures Co., Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 15m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White

Synopsis

In New Orleans, when Johnny Walters discerns that two detectives are tailing him, he eludes them and heads for the northern California home of his mother Sarah, whom he has not seen for over six years. Sarah is thrilled at the return of her beloved son, as is her widowed daughter-in-law, Helen, whose young son Doug needs a male influence in his life. The newly restored family enjoys an evening at home, during which Johnny regales Helen with tales of his world travel, and reveals that although his father was content to be poor, he has devoted his life to becoming rich, and now has enough money to take care of the family. He gives them all gifts, presenting Helen with an emerald ring in which she finds the engraving "RD to JD." Seeing the initials, Johnny tells her that he won the ring in a poker game and tries to take it back, but Helen insists that she loves it as is. After performing a magic show with a delighted Doug, Johnny finds an article in the newspaper that disturbs him. He rips it out and places it in his pocket, and in an attempt to disguise what he has done, pretends to be performing a failed magic trick with the newspaper. When Johnny asks about Sarah's friend Lily, the widow of a real estate tycoon, Sarah interprets this interst as a desire to settle down in town. Later, Helen brings a snack to Johnny in his room, and upon spying the newspaper article in his pocket, teases him by snatching it away. She is shocked when Johnny grabs her arm roughly to retrieve the article, but accepts his explanation that it contained bad news about a friend. The next morning, Johnny is infuriated when he sees Doug riding his new bicycle, and reminds Sarah that he has a childhood bike accident to thank for his recurring headaches. With effort, he calms himself, but is further disturbed by the news that reporters are coming in hours to photograph the Walterses, whom they have chosen to interview as a "typical American family." Johnny slips up the back stairs to avoid the reporters, who are in actuality Mike Randall and Roy, the detectives who have been tailing Johnny. Mike interviews Helen and Sarah and, while he finds himself charmed by Helen, Roy sneaks up the back stairs and takes a picture of Johnny. Helen refuses to allow the men access to the upstairs, hoping to placate Johnny, whom she is surprised to see eavesdropping on them. Later, Johnny drives over Doug's bike, and although he claims it was an accident, Helen realizes he has done it on purpose. Confused and suspicious, she confronts Mike at his hotel and learns that Johnny may be a murderer but that another man is also suspected of the crime. Helen returns home, where Lily is visiting with Johnny, and sneaks into his room, but finds only the charred remnants of the newspaper article. She races to the library to read the paper, and there discovers that a serial killer of wealthy widows has recently murdered a woman named Janice Dawson. Realizing Janice's initials match those on her ring, Helen goes home and confronts Johnny, insisting that he leave town. He responds that the world is full of "selfish, miserable animals" and women who live off money they do not deserve. Although Johnny tries to kiss her, Helen vows to turn him in. In the morning, Johnny listens in when Mike calls to inform Helen that the other suspect has been killed and the case closed. Helen, however, tells Johnny she still must advise Mike about the ring to clear her conscience. In response Johnny urges her out the back door, where she trips on the step that he has earlier loosened in the hope of killing her. Frightened by Helen's "accident," Sarah suffers chest pains, and Johnny uses his mother's fragility to convince Helen not to turn him in right away. Instead, she gives him a few hours to leave town quietly, making an appointment to talk to Mike later in the afternoon. Johnny then pours Sarah's heart medication into Helen's milk just before he, Sarah and Doug are supposed leave for a party at Lily's. He then sends the others off ahead of him and returns to the house to make sure that Helen has collapsed. He then leaves for the party, not knowing that a worried Mike is headed to the house. Mike rescues Helen in time to save her, and waits at the house while she goes to the party. Johnny, who was about to announce his plans to stay in town, is horrified to see her, and declares that he must leave immediately. Helen escorts him back to the house, but once there he knocks out Mike, drags Helen into his car and drives off with her. Knowing he is going to kill her, Helen grabs the keys, and although Johnny overpowers her, he is forced to swerve to avoid hitting a boy riding his bike, and is killed in the resulting accident. At the memorial service, as Johnny is lauded as a model citizen, only Helen and Mike know the real truth.

Film Details

Release Date
Nov 1958
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Universal-International Pictures Co., Inc.
Distribution Company
Universal Pictures Co., Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 15m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Although Charles Drake's character is referred to in the closing credits as "Johnny Williams," he is called "Johnny Walters" throughout the film. Step Down to Terror was a remake of the 1943 Universal film Shadow of a Doubt, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Theresa Wright and Joseph Cotten (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). Gordon McDonell, listed in the Step Down to Terror credits with the original story, actually wrote the story on which Shadow of a Doubt was based. Although the two versions are quite similar, in Shadow of a Doubt the two main characters are not in-laws but niece and uncle, and that film ends with Joseph Cotten's character dying in a train accident instead of in a car.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1959

Released in United States 1959