The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak / U.S., 1945):

The virtuosic opening exalts cinema ("the Wonder of the Age") as an art torn between romantic and predatory gazes. A silent one-reeler screens at a fin-de-siècle hotel parlor, the camera tilts from the rapt audience to the gargantuan chandelier looming over them; a dissolve to the room upstairs reveals a lame girl in her underwear and a killer in the closet, close-ups of her hands as she’s strangled segue back to the projection room, the heroine on the screen-within-the-screen is no more. (When Robert Siodmak equates the camera’s iris with the murderer’s staring pupil, at once you recognize Peeping Tom, Black Christmas, Deep Red, etc.) The maiden (Dorothy McGuire) is a servant who was traumatized speechless as a child, she toils at a crabby widow’s mansion (Ethel Barrymore plays the bedridden ogress with an adroit trigger finger) and dreams of genteel love with the town doctor (Kent Smith). George Brent and Gordon Oliver are stepbrothers, "weaklings" under the shadow of patriarchal expectations; Rhonda Fleming (comely secretary), Elsa Lanchester (soused cook), Sara Allgood (stony nurse) and Rhys Williams (sinister groundskeeper) provide assorted red herrings and bogus clues over the course of one stormy night. Amid thunderclap and corpses, Barrymore waxes otherworldly about creeping terrors of her own: "Too many trees stretch their branches... knock the windows... try to get in." The culprit has been raised to "dispose of the weak and the imperfect," a knee-level tracking shot finds the villainous figure atop the staircase as he envisions the mute girl sans mouth (Un Chien Andalou). The psychopath is unmasked, Barrymore rises from her bed, McGuire regains her voice -- erected on expressionistic Gothic menace, Siodmak’s fable also looks ahead to the questioning horror traumas Robin Wood would later group as "American Nightmares," Wiederhorn’s great Eyes of a Stranger in particular benefits from it. Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca. With James Bell, Erville Alderson, and Ellen Corby. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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