Michael M. Wilk | Howard Beach, NY | 03/27/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Robert Siodmak's "The Spiral Staircase" is one of my all-time favorite thrillers. It was adapted from the book "Some Must Watch" by the prolific Ethel Lina White. 2 of White's books had been made into films by Alfred Hitchcock. "The Wheel Spins" became "The Lady Vanishes", and "Before the Fact" became "Suspicion". "The Spiral Staircase" deals with a pretty creepy premise: An unknown killer has been murdering women with "afflictions". (One victim was disfigured, another feeble-minded, another lame). Helen, a young mute servant girl working in a gloomy old mansion, is the killer's next intended victim. The killer is in the house with her, but who is it? Siodmak, a master of film noir, holds your attention for approximately 85 minutes, and never lets go. All of the classic elements are here: Old gloomy house, thunderstorm, chiaroscuro lighting, eerie musical score, colorful performances. The sets, by the way, are leftovers from Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons", the music score by Roy Webb, who had composed other goose-pimplers such as "The Cat People", "I Walked With a Zombie", "The Body Snatcher" and Hitchcock's "Notorious". Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman on the Theremin is featured on this score, providing added goosebumps. And the cast! Pretty Dorothy McGuire is excellent as the endangered Helen, in a house peopled by the likes of the very grand Ethel Barrymore, the wooden George Brent, marvelous character actors Elsa Lanchester, Rhys Williams and Sara Allgood, handsome Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver, and lovely Rhonda Fleming. Ellen Corby is in the film too, in a bit part-watch for her! Robert Siodmak was an excellent "B" movie director, having made masterpieces on relatively small budgets. His other films include "The Killers", "Phantom Lady", "Son of Dracula", the camp classic "Cobra Woman", "Criss Cross", and the Burt Lancaster romp "The Crimson Pirate". So, in this age of over-inflated budgets, it's a wonder and honor to see these well-made films from an era of almost non-existent special effects, modest budgets, and great actors. The picture and sound quality on this DVD are excellent-very clean and crisp, so you can really appreciate the gloomy Victorian sets and eerie musical score. There are practically no extras on the disc-just the theatrical trailer, but who's complaining? So, lock your doors and windows, because you never know who's watching you, and maybe even look under the bed, just to be on the safe side, and watch "The Spiral Staircase"-you will be thoroughly, enjoyably chilled!"
Old fashioned thriller is eerie, tense and well acted.
O. Khan | Cambridge, England United Kingdom | 06/18/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"One of the most creepy and effective thrillers from the immediate post war era. The movie is in many respects a precursor to modern serial killer/stalker movies and used scare tactics that still remain in use more than 50 years later. The focus of the film is on a household where a cranky old grandmother is bedridden and waiting to die, being looked after by a mute nurse who is the serial killers obvious next target as he clearly goes after victims with afflictions in his attempt to restore perfection and beauty to a tainted world. The director manages to conjure up an effective feeling of dread and claustrophobia - this is a long, long way from William Castle's amiable ghost frolic The House on Haunted Hill which played more like a farce than a thriller. The film is a little reminiscent of another classic serial killer outing made much later in England, Peeping Tom and was clearly way ahead of its time when it came out in 1946. The cast headed by Dorothy McGuire and George Brent but watch out especially for one of the screen's immortal icons, Elsa Lanchester who will forever be remembered as The Bride of Frankenstein. The Spiral Staircase is a superior thriller, may be a touch over wrought by today's standards, but effective, tense and fairly creepy. Perhaps, along with M, the great great granddaddy of the modern serial killer thriller. Far superior to the horrid remake that was dished up in 1975."
"I'm never more witty than when I've had a little nip."
cookieman108 | Inside the jar... | 10/26/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I did some checking and I discovered this film, The Spiral Staircase, originally released in 1946, has been remade a few times over the years...once in 1961 with Eddie Albert, Hayley Mills, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Gig Young (a made for TV feature), again in 1975 with Jacqueline Bisset, Christopher Plummer, and John Phillip Law (a full length feature this time), and then yet again in 2000 with Nicollette Sheridan and Judd Nelson (this last one, also a made for TV feature, sounds like a real winner). Adapted from the novel "Some Must Watch" by Ethel Lina White, and directed Robert Siodmak (The Killers, Criss Cross, The Crimson Pirate), the film stars the demure, beautiful, and extremely talented Dorothy McGuire (Three Coins in the Fountain, Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson). Also appearing is George Brent (The Corpse Came C.O.D., FBI Girl), Kent Smith (Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People), Rhonda Fleming (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), Gordon Oliver (Jezebel), Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein, Murder by Death), Sara Allgood (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Rhys Williams (How Green Was My Valley), James Bell (I Walked with a Zombie), and Ethel Barrymore, who won an Oscar in her previous, supporting role in the Cary Grant film None But the Lonely Heart (1944).
The film, set at the turn of the century, begins with the murder of a woman at a hotel, one where a crowd of people just happen to be in attendance of an old timey picture show (the kind where a pianist plays the accompanying score), including Helen (McGuire), a mute woman who works as a servant for a local well to do family. Around this time we learn the murder is not an isolated incident, as someone is stalking women with physical infirmities and doing way with them (the woman in the hotel had a severe limp). Dr. Parry (Smith), who has a keen interest in Helen and her condition, makes the scene and offers her a ride home, but halfway there he's called away so Helen must walk the rest of the way, and it seems, along with the darkness (and a menacing figure lurking about), a storm is coming (in more ways than one). Once Helen arrives at her place of employment, a very large manor owned by a family named Warren, we meet a whole slew of interesting characters. There's Professor Warren (Brent), his secretary Blanche (Fleming), the Professor's playboy half brother Stephen (Oliver) who's just returned from a long European trip, their bedridden mother Mrs. Warren (Barrymore), Mrs. Oates (Lanchester), the cook, her husband (Williams), and finally Nurse Barker (Allgood). As the storm outside continues to build, so does the ominous sense of danger, due in part to Mrs. Warren's continual insistences Helen leave the house as soon as possible, as she seems to have serious doubts about Helen's safety (one couldn't blame her given her sons, one a smarmy mouth ne'er-do-well, the other a bookish fop). There's safety in numbers, but as various members of the household are called away for whatever reason, Helen soon discovers she probably should have listened to Mrs. Warren and got while the gettin' was good...
I enjoyed this film a lot, especially in terms of the huge, slightly creepy manor which most of the story took place. The distinctive shadows, darkened corridors, elaborate sets pieces, combined with masterful directing, featuring some strong and off putting killer point of view shots, and spooky musical scoring, all went a long way towards creating an overall eerie atmosphere, a continual sense of evil present as right from the beginning...that and the fact we knew from early on the killer followed Helen home and gained entry into the house. The characters are very distinctive, and played expertly by a highly professional cast, the real standouts being Dorothy McGuire, who has practically no speaking lines throughout the film and must rely solely on her expressionistic abilities, and also Ethel Barrymore as the infirmed, but certainly not mentally impaired Mrs. Warren, once a woman of great strength, now confined to her bed by afflictions brought on by advanced age (she was actually nominated for an Oscar in her role here). The one thing that really gave me the heebie jeebies as far as this film went was Ms. Barrymore as she would often seem to be feigning sleep, but then you'd look over at her and her eyes would be wide open, taking in everything that was going on...Bette Davis may have had peepers distinctive enough for Kim Carnes to pen a song about, but Ethel Barrymore certainly could have given her a run for the money (that and the fact the words Bette Davis comes across much better in a song than the words Ethel Barrymore). And talking about eyes, the killer was often displayed only in much abbreviated form, hands, a foot, etc., but usually by a close up of one wide, glaring eye full of murderous intent. As far as the identity of the killer, it was really anyone's game up until a certain point, and by then the writers wisely saw no point in keeping it a mystery anymore, as most everyone should have gotten clued in by then. I did pick up on it a little earlier than I expected, but only because of the not entirely subtle pushing of other characters as suspects drove me to my own conclusions. As to the motive behind the murders, that aspect did remain secret until it was revealed. I suppose one might be able to discern it before the reveal, but I think this is a much more difficult element to peel away from the story, even though the pieces were there, which is, in my opinion, a real credit towards those who originally wrote, and then adapted this intricate story to the screen. For me, the most harrowing sequences involved the latter ones where various characters ventured, armed only with a candle, down into the dark, drafty, spooky, cobwebbed basement, filled with niches and hidey holes. All in all this is a wonderfully crafted film, and while I haven't seen the various remakes, I have a pretty good feeling the original is probably still the best.
The picture, presented in fullscreen, original aspect ratio (1.33:1), looks beautifully sharp and clean, and the Dolby Digital mono audio comes through extremely clear. The only extra featured on the DVD is a theatrical trailer for the Johnny Depp film Secret Window (2004), and odd inclusion, I thought, but whatever.
Not very mysterious ... but oh, the atmosphere!
Carl Tait | New York, NY USA | 11/21/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The plotting and script of "The Spiral Staircase" are reasonably good but unexceptional. The "surprise" ending isn't very startling even by 1940s standards -- try "Laura" (1944) for a much more inventive mystery plot.All of this is beside the point, however. As a thriller, this film is justly beloved for one critical factor: ATMOSPHERE. No special effects, no buckets of blood, no sexual escapades interrupted by serial killers, but a truly unnerving (and beautifully effective) sense of gloom and uneasy fear. Robert Siodmak was one of the greatest directors of film noir, and virtually every movie he made is shot through with his wonderful brand of darkly-shadowed artistry.It is sad to report that this is Siodmak's only film noir available on DVD. At least "The Killers" (1946; his "Citizen Kane") is on VHS -- along with "Phantom Lady" and a few other goodies -- but some of Siodmak's classic films are not commercially available in any form. When are we getting the DVDs of "Cry of the City" or "Christmas Holiday"? In the meantime, let's be glad that "The Spiral Staircase" is available for our shivery enjoyment."