A serial killer is murdering women with “imperfections” and everyone agrees that Helen (Dorothy MCGuire), mute from a childhood trauma, is in danger, such that the good and rather pushy new Dr. Perry (Kent Smith) insists she leave town with him. The night of the most recent murder, Helen returns from the silent movies to the home of ailing Mrs. Warren where she’s employed. Also in the house is Warren’s stepson, respected Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), and her playboy son, Steve (Gordon Oliver), recently returned from Paris. The household is filled in with staff and servants: secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), and Mr. & Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams & Elsa Lanchester). On this rainy night, the constable stops by to warn them that the killer has been traced to the immediate area.
One day after complaining about the drabness of the house in the Old Dark House film Before Dawn, The Spiral Staircase present me with this magnificent building. Sure, it doesn’t have secret passageways, but then it doesn’t need them as it’s so twisty. There’s windows and cellar doors aplenty to pop open when the killer needs to get around or the potential victims decide to foolishly wander off. It’s beautiful art design, and looks fantastic in high contrast, deep focus B&W. Nothing could happen and I’d still be entertained looking at that house.
The Spiral Staircase is absent from most lists of Old Dark House films (and often called a Noir simply because it’s a B&W crime movie—it’s not Noir as it’s not set in a hopeless world filled with amoral, evil people and the occasional antihero; it just has one killer). My guess is it’s because the sub-genre tends toward low budget B-films, while The Spiral Staircase is a lavish affair created with care and precision. But it definitely fits the category. The entire story takes place in one night, with a vast majority of time spent in the house. There’s a storm outside and inside shadows loom large. The characters are a bit quirky, with Mrs. Warren making ominous predictions from her deathbed, Steve oozing sleaziness, both Steve and Albert submerged in daddy issues, and alcoholic Mrs. Oates swiping booze from her boss. And there’s voyeurism and screams. Yes, this is an Old Dark House film, and one of the best.
Helen is a well drawn character, but better as our opening into the film. Because she’s mute, she can’t scream, can’t yell for help, can’t be heard by the others, just like the audience. She isn’t helpless, repeatedly makes reasonable and sometimes surprisingly forceful choices, but she’s mostly on her own, with us. We know what she’s thinking, but no one else seems to (and she rolls her eyes with us as Dr. Perry keeps treating her like a child).
Barrymore nearly steals the picture. Mrs. Warren is mystery and strength and death all rolled up, and she is the heart of the house. She lays in her gigantic bed in her elaborate room, and everything revolves around her. Her statements tend to bite, but can be kind, depending on to whom she’s speaking and what is behind her words. It’s a great performance.
The Spiral Staircase is a tense thriller, filled with creaking gates, thumping shutters, and flickering candles. It’s atmospheric first, but it has a story to tell too, and if the look of it is more compelling than the substance, it’s only because the elegant cinematography is so striking.