The Spiral Staircase (1945)


In a small town, a vicious serial killer, who only murders women with disabilities, is terrorizing a tight-knit community. Helen (Dorothy McGuire, Gentleman’s Agreement), a mute young woman working for a bedridden dowager, Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, None but the Lonely Heart), is naturally concerned for her safety.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Leave this house tonight if you know what’s good for you.”

As far as I’m concerned, this is the granddaddy of the Italian slasher, better known as “giallo.” And because the subgenre “giallo” is the precursor to the American slasher, one could argue that The Spiral Staircase is also an ancestor of sorts to films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

Although it served as a blueprint for future killer-on-the-loose blockbusters, it’s also worth noting that The Spiral Staircase has many things in common with legendary producer Val Lewton’s classic RKO low-budget thrillers, which include The Seventh Victim (1943), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943).

Adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is stylishly directed by Robert Siodmak, whose credits include noir classics The Killers (1946) and The Dark Mirror (1946). It was shot in chiaroscuro fashion by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (I Remember Mama). Most of the story takes place in dark rooms at night, and a sense of dread and anxiety permeates throughout the entire film.

Lead actor Dorothy McGuire is fabulous as the archetypal “final girl.” McGuire can’t rely on dialogue to convey fear, but her eyes are very expressive. It’s a great example of a quiet performance — no pun intended — that carries a lot of power.

Ethel Barrymore is excellent as well — she received an Oscar nod for her small but showy role of the elderly matriarch. George Brent (The Great Lie) is surprisingly great as Barrymore’s mild-mannered stepson. Brent, who tends to be a bit dull in a lot of movies, is able to create a well-rounded characterization of a lonely professor.

The supporting cast is composed of beloved character actors: Kent Smith (Cat People) plays Dr. Parry, Rhonda Fleming (Spellbound) plays Secretary Blanche, and Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley) plays Nurse Barker. Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein) and Rhys Williams (The Corn is Green) play a pair of servants. Ellen Corby (TV’s The Waltons) has appears briefly as local woman.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Spiral Staircase is a top-notch chiller. It’s suspenseful, clever and so much fun. It’s also scary — I simply don’t see how anyone could dislike this incursion into the macabreI feel safe recommending The Spiral Staircase to all movie buffs. Remade (poorly, I must add) in 1975 and 2000B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.


7 responses to “The Spiral Staircase (1945)

  1. I really like this film, too. This has to be one of my favorite Brent performances, too. I know what you mean; he’s usually not very interesting.

    It is interesting how you make the connection between this and Val Lewton’s films. I see what you mean now.

    Liked by 2 people

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