Spiral Staircase, The (1946): Siodmak’s Stylish Suspenseful Thriller, Starring Dorothy McGuire

The Spiral Staircase is arguably the best-known and most popular film of German director Robert Siodmak, noted for his stylish direction of atmospheric suspensers (The Killers), films executed with impressive skill and striking technical craftsmanship.

Dorothy McGuire plays Helen Capel, a likable girl who’s mute because of a childhood trauma. She works as a caretaker of the house that belongs to the wealthy Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), a demanding widowed invalid.

The identity of the mysterious killer, who may or may not be in the house in a guise, remains unknown until the end, when there is a twist ending.  The climax, in which the innocent and deaf Helen finally realizes who the killer is, is well-executed.

McGuire, at a good point in her screen career, is utterly convincing as an initially sweet and obedient girl, who’s all about helping the sickly matron survive, after going through a traumatic experience as a young girl witnessing the burning down of her house with her two beloved parents inside, which, among other things, has cost her the loss of her voice.

Helen has fallen in love with one of Mrs. Warren’s sons, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), who she believes to be a gentle and understanding man.

Helen’s peaceful life is changed forever when three local women, all with physical handicaps, are found murdered.

Ethel Barrymore received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as Mrs. Warren.

As written by Mel Dinelli, the plot uses all the themes of the “dark, haunted house” subgenre, adding stormy weather to its great isolation and fear of getting outside or going to the center of the village.

Also in complete display are some basic stylistic devices of film noir, such as the play of light and shadow, flickering lamps, strange sounds, a wine cellar. It also reworks the notion of siblings, one good, the other bad, and how physical appearances and behaviors can be deceitful.

The film is consistently suspenseful due to the prevailing foreboding atmosphere from first frame to last.

Throughout Helen is observed through the eyes of her stalker, who the audience sees only as a pair of menacing eyes.


Black and white

Running time: 84 Minutes