The Spiral Staircase (1945)

2010 #112
Robert Siodmak | 80 mins | TV | PG

A serial murderer is on the loose in 1900s New England, or 1910s Massachusetts (pick which website you want to believe). His victims are all disabled women, so at the wealthy Warren residence, both family and staff worry for mute maid Helen — particularly as it seems the murderer may be among them…

From this relatively simple premise, screenwriter Mel Dinelli and director Robert Siodmak spin a yarn that, over the course of just one dark and stormy night, blends together gothic horror, film noir, serial killer thriller and Christie-esque whodunnit. The resulting blend makes for a film that is, for several reasons, an exceptionally entertaining work. Perhaps I’m predisposed to like it, though, as those four constituent genres are all among my favourites.

Dinelli’s screenplay sets up the cast — and, therefore, the list of suspects — almost casually. With the threat not necessarily coming from within, we (or, at least, I) don’t immediately realise that we’re being shown a list of people to suspect. But as the bed-ridden and delirious Mrs. Warren issues dire warnings, and the house closes itself off from the outside world in the face of the storm, it becomes apparent that the culprit is already among them.

Some viewers allege that it’s at this point the story falls apart; that there’s only one possible suspect. I disagree. Though I can’t say the film entirely had me fooled, there are several suspicious characters, particularly if you’re prepared to consider extraordinary leaps of probability — and in genres like gothic horror, film noir and whodunnit, you should be. Indeed, while some see the killer as obvious others may consider them unlikely; but, for the attentive, the groundwork for the motivation is laid throughout.

And even if the killer is obvious, the film has much more going for it. Siodmak’s direction is exemplary, supported by equally alluring camerawork from cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. In perhaps his most daring move, Siodmak takes us literally into the killer’s eyes to view his subjects, making the viewer to some degree complicit in this voyeurism. Elsewhere, genuine tension is wrung out of numerous sequences, something that can rarely be said these days, when victims and victors are all too obvious in most films. One excellent sequence sees repeated potential threats being set up, dissipated, only to be followed by another. It ultimately ends with humour rather than shock, but we’re still left with the thought — seemingly forgotten by the characters — of why was that window open in the first place? The climax, on the titular staircase, is all sharp angles and deep shadows, easily the equal of anything else in the film.

A mention for the sound design, too. Even during simple dialogue scenes, where one might expect silence but for the words in a film of this era, rain lashes against the window in the background, the heavy weather a ceaseless reminder of the threat lurking close at hand. It is, to use a cliché, a character in itself. Thanks to the enclosed setting, we spend a fair amount of time with these characters, and there are good performances too, but that’s for another reviewer to discuss — try Riding the High Country’s excellent appraisal, for instance.

What struck me most about The Spiral Staircase was its atmosphere. It’s the perfect filmic evocation of a dark and stormy night, and with its setting contained to one securely locked (or is it?) house, this is — depending on your disposition — either the last film you’d want to watch late on a rain-lashed night, or the perfect one. Having watched it on one myself, I most assuredly side with the latter.

5 out of 5

The Spiral Staircase is on BBC Two tonight (or, more precisely, tomorrow) at 1am. Let’s hope there’s a storm coming…

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