Originally developed by David O. Selznick as a vehicle for his latest star Ingrid Bergman, "The Spiral Staircase" still manages to retain the lavish gloss of a Selznick production even though his name doesn't appear on the final product. The film was based on the novel 'Some Must Watch' by 'The Lady Vanishes' author Ethel Lina White; the story was picked up by Selznick who then assigned Dore Schary to produce it for him. Eventually, Selznick was forced to sell the property to RKO Studios (with Schary still involved as producer) to raise cash to finish 'Duel in the Sun' which by now was behind schedule and way over budget. Bergman also dropped out -- her role instead went to Dorothy McGuire (another Selznick discovery) who turned in a fine performance as the mute heroine who is menaced by a serial killer in turn-of-the-Century New England.
McGuire plays Helen Capel, a young woman who lives and works as a nurse at the shadowy mansion of the bedridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also living in the house are the old matriarch's step-son Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) and his ex-fiancé, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) -- as well as various house-staff such as creepy grounds-man Mr Oates (Rhys Williams) and his wife, an alcoholic cook played by 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester. The arrival at the mansion of Mrs Warren's son from her previous marriage, Steven (Gordon Oliver), coincides with a spate of killings in the area - all of the murderer's victims being young women afflicted with various disabilities. Since Helen has been mute since she witnessed a traumatic event as a child, she is warned by the local police to stay inside the house until the culprit is caught - as she is obviously a prime target for the killer. However, the ailing Mrs. Warren insists that Helen is in great danger if she stays and that she should leave immediately with Dr Parry (Kent Smith), the local doctor whom she hopes one day to marry and who holds out hope of a cure for her condition from a specialist in another town. Her decision is made for her though when Dr Parry is called away on an urgent case and Helen is forced to spend the night in the creepy mansion, despite being convinced that the killer is one of the occupants of the place. Inevitably, as a thunderstorm rages outside and the rest of the household becomes incapacitated for various reasons, the killer reveals his identity to her, leaving her no choice but to confront him alone!
It seems rather unusual to see this kind of material getting such lavish Hollywood treatment: sumptuous period set-designs, fantastic art direction from Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey, and wonderfully atmospheric cinematography from Nicholas Musuraca (Val Lewton's main cameraman) all go toward giving this Gothic Psycho-Chiller a kind of 'Gone With The Wind' polish that makes it look perfectly at home as Saturday afternoon matinee fodder for TV, while at the same time, the film is notably ahead of its time in dealing with the serial killer theme in a way that foreshadows some of the classics of the genre such as "Peeping Tom" and "Psycho". RKO splashed out on a large budget for the film because of the success they'd had with some of Val Lewton's low-budget horrors such as "The Cat People" (1942) and "I Walked With a Zombie" (1943) and director, Robert Siodmak makes sure that every penny is visible on screen - working with Musuraca and special effects technician Vernon L. Walker (famous for his work on "Citizen Kane" as well as Hitchock's films for RKO such as "Spellbound") to produce some intriguing imagery which includes striking representations of the killers point of view. The most noteworthy example comes when the audience is alerted to the murderer's presence in the Warren house (long before anyone in the film suspects) by a close-up of the killer's eye as he secretly observes Helen. The filmmakers cleverly present how the killer sees things by showing Helen reflected in the killer's eye with her mouth blanked out (note how Lamberto Bava would try to represent a killer's warped state of mind through hallucinatory images years later in the dreadful giallo "Delirium" - where the effect is, like almost everything else in the film, dreadfully bungled), very effectively portraying his obsession with female 'imperfection'. The opening scene, where we see the killer's staring eye peaking out of the darkness of a woman's closet as she gets dressed, calls to mind such modern classics as "Blue Velvet", "Black Christmas" and "Profondo Rosso". Whether the film had any direct influence over any of these is hard to say, but the climax - with the heroine trapped in a house alone with a killer, certainly conjures up the spectres of a thousand eighties slashers!
Not only is the film successful in utilising imaginative expressionistic imagery and combining the Romantic/Gothic tradition with the modern psychological thriller, but it also provides an excellent opportunity for several top character actors to do their stuff thanks to writer Mel Dinelli's intelligent scripting. Dorothy McGuire is generally thought to have given her best performance -- although she was overlooked for that year's Oscar nominations, while Ethel Barrymore, as the mysterious bed-bound Mrs Warren, earned herself a best supporting actress nomination for her performance. Even rather minor roles such as Blanche, Dr Warren's ex-wife (played by Rhonda Fleming) or Elsa Lanchester's alcoholic cook, Mrs Oates, are well enough written to make their characters quite memorable despite their relatively short screen time. This does mean that the film can be accused of being rather slow-moving, especially the opening forty minutes, but the final twenty minutes provide as well crafted a suspense sequence as you could hope for. McGuire's muteness, as well as making her a target for the killer, means she can't attract help by resorting to 'scream queen' tactics - a fact that the script exploits very effectively - while an effective score from Roy Webb makes good use of that old gothic horror standby the theremin!
The region 2 DVD from PT Video presents the film as part of its Classic Film Collection and gives us a fine transfer of the film, with a sharp and detailed black & white image. The film is presented in the correct 4:3 ratio and is non-anamorphic, while the mono soundtrack is free of hiss and crackles. The disc's extras are entirely text-based, consisting of biographies of David O. Selznick, Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore. A New York Times film review is also included, but this turns out to be just a short paragraph and not really worth getting excited about, while the now seemingly obligatory photo-gallery of five or six screen-shots from the film rounds of this fairly meagre selection of extras. However, the disc is available rather cheaply (I've seen it for as little as £3.99 on-line) and since the film looks great, I wouldn't hesitate in recommending fans of classic horror pick this up.
I must confess, I was not really aware of this film until I happened across it in an on-line sale; although, at the time of its release it went on to gross over $1 million at the box office, it doesn't appear to have retained too high a profile in the public consciousness since then - but fans of Hitchcock's work from the forties, as well as the classic horror fan, will almost certainly appreciate this little gem.