The Spiral Staircase (1946) ***
This non-Val Lewton RKO horror flick, which was completed at the very end of 1945 but not released until early in ‘46, is among the studio’s stronger offerings in the genre. As an adaptation of an early 20th century suspense novel (actually two such books— the main plotline from Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch has been gussied up with elements of Mary Roberts Rhinehart’s The Circular Staircase, the latter of which was also filmed straight in 1926 and 1959 as The Bat and in 1930 as The Bat Whispers), The Spiral Staircase is somewhat short on action, but it compensates by being reasonably suspenseful and by featuring a killer with an interesting psychological motivation. Which, of course, is precisely what one looks for from RKO in the 40’s.
I’ve heard the year of this movie’s setting quoted as both 1906 and 1916; both are possible, I suppose, but it looks more like the latter to me. At a large hotel in a small New England town, a crowd of people has gathered in the lobby to watch a movie called The Kiss. (This scene offers a fascinating glimpse at what the moviegoing experience might have been like early in the silent era.) While the attention of most everyone in the hotel is thus focused elsewhere, one of the guests— a young woman with a pronounced limp— is up in room nine changing her clothes. Unbeknownst to her, there is a man hiding behind the row of densely packed garments hanging in her closet, and at the perfect moment when the woman’s dress is up over her head, this man springs forth and strangles her to death. The thump of her falling body just barely reaches the ears of the hotel manager down in the lobby, and the killer has plenty of time to escape out the window before anyone makes it to room nine.
One of the last people to leave the lobby when the town constable (James Bell, from I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man) shoos away the crowd is a mute girl in her early 20’s by the name of Helen Chapel (Dorothy McGuire). Helen works as a servant in the Warren house, a huge old mansion a good distance outside of town. On her way to work, she runs into her friend, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith, from Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People), a physician who just moved into town a few months ago. Parry has also come from the hotel, where he had gone to have a look at the body of the murdered woman, and something about the case makes the doctor fear for Helen’s safety specifically. The renter of room nine had been the third victim in what is shaping up to be a veritable strangling spree, and each time, the murderer has selected an otherwise attractive young woman with some sort of defect. The first victim was mentally retarded, the second had a conspicuous facial scar, and the third, allow me to remind you, had a gimp leg. So Helen, as a mute, would seem to fit right into the strangler’s target demographic. Parry understandably offers Helen a ride to work in his carriage (cars were still relatively rare in those days, especially in rural areas), rather than have her walk all the way to the Warren house by herself. She ends up making the last leg of the trek alone anyway, however, because before they get to the house, a young boy comes running down the path hollering about how his mother needs a doctor. Wouldn’t you know it, a thunderstorm breaks out right after sundown, when Helen is still most of a mile from the Warren place, and between the darkness and the rain, she doesn’t notice that she’s being followed at a stealthy distance by a man in a black raincoat and hat. Helen just barely makes it to the house before the raincoat guy gets within arm’s reach of her.
Okay, so there are two general possibilities when it comes to the identity of the man in the coat, who quite obviously is the killer of the woman at the hotel and her two predecessors. He could be a total stranger— as the fact that he lets himself into the house through one of the ground-floor windows would seem to suggest— or he could be one of the major characters. Since this is the mid-1940’s we’re talking about, the latter seems like the safer bet, so let’s have a look at our roster of potential suspects (and potential victims). Helen’s boss is the lady of the house, the aged and infirm Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Sure, she’s old and sick, but she’s also completely crazy and has a very short fuse— probably not the killer, but let’s be sure to remember how enamored the writers of old-school mysteries were of wildly implausible conclusions. Mrs. Warren has two sons— well, a son and a stepson, at any rate— neither of whom can stand the other. The older of the two half-brothers is named Edward (George Brennt)— Professor Edward, as a matter of fact. The younger sibling, and the one with direct biological ties to the old lady, is called Steven (Gordon Oliver). Not only is Steven not a professor, he doesn’t seem to be much of anything at all, unless of course you want to count “shiftless parasite” as an occupation. There are actually pretty solid reasons for suspecting both of the younger Warrens. Edward is obviously seething with all manner of resentments: his contempt for his ne’er-do-well half-brother, his frustration at being forced to look after a daffy old lady who isn’t even related to him except by marriage, the friction between him and Steven that stems from the latter man’s involvement with Edward’s secretary and ex-girlfriend Blanche (Rhonda Fleming, from Revolt of the Slaves). It’s not to hard to imagine him blowing off steam by strangling the occasional girl. Steven, on the other hand, has a suspicious habit of sneaking out of the house and lying about it later. Not only that, his mother says he “makes trouble” every time he comes home. Serial strangling kind of trouble, perhaps? Then there’s Oates the handyman (Rhys Williams, of Man in the Attic and The Son of Dr. Jekyll), and his wife (Elsa Lanchester, best remembered for her appearance a decade before in Bride of Frankenstein). There doesn’t seem to be much reason to suspect either of them, except that Mrs. Oates is a drunk and a petty thief, while “the butler did it” didn’t become a cliche for nothing. And while we’re at it, I suppose we might also include Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood, from the 1944 version of The Lodger and the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde... now that’s odd— two people with a Lodger remake and a Dr. Jekyll movie on their resumes in the same cast...) and, for that matter, Dr. Parry in the lineup.
Most of the movie’s running time is devoted to casting suspicious hints in the direction of virtually every major character, while occasionally tossing in a scene or a shot designed to remind us that the killer is, in fact, stalking the house somewhere. Eventually, though, Blanche, who has just had a suggestively major fight with Steven, runs afoul of the killer down in the cellar (to which the titular staircase connects the rest of the house) and the pace picks up a bit. It’s Helen, naturally, who finds Blanche’s body, at a point in the film at which virtually everyone who might possibly be able to protect her is out of the picture (Blanche dead, Mrs. Oates passed out drunk, Nurse Barker having resigned in a huff, Parry and Mr. Oates both out on errands that don’t entirely rule out the possibility of their being the killer), leaving her completely to her own devices once the murderer finally reveals himself. And surprisingly enough, it isn’t any of the missing men who ultimately saves Helen’s ass.
I think my favorite thing about The Spiral Staircase is the way it seems to hint at the gialli and slasher movies that would follow 20, 30, 40 years later. Though everything is handled in an predictably old-fashioned manner, many of the story elements are remarkably forward-looking. There’s the ending, of course, which would have been ahead of its time even in the 1960’s, but that’s far from the only way in which The Spiral Staircase reminds me as much of John Carpenter as it does of Agatha Christie. At a time when most mystery murderers were still slaying for greed or revenge, this movie confronts us with a killer who is simply completely off his rocker. Then there’s the complete irrelevance of the legal authorities to the story. Oh, there’s a constable alright, but his sole contribution to the plot is to arrive at the house just moments after the final showdown has begun, only to be sent away with a reassurance from the lips of the killer himself that everything’s just fine; he never does find out that there’s a serial strangler stalking the Warren house. The final touch is a minor one, but given my love for all things shitty and Italian, it was naturally one of the first things I picked up on: the killer’s black leather gloves. If there was a giallo made where the killer’s presence was not indicated by a quick close-up on a pair of black leather gloves, I haven’t seen it. Spot the Influences is a tricky game to play— the makers of Monster from a Prehistoric Planet/Gappa: The Triphibian Monsters astonishingly claim not to have seen Gorgo, for example— but the similarity of The Spiral Staircase to what came afterward is, at the very least, strongly suggestive.