EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Sunday, October 31, 2010

EvidenceProf Blog's 4th Annual Halloween Movie Pick: Robert Siodmak's "The Spiral Staircase"

It's Halloween again, which means that it's time for EvidenceProf's Blog's fourth annual Halloween movie pick (after "The Gift," "Homecoming," and "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"). For this year's pick, I'm once again digging into the archives from my days reviewing DVDs and pulling out a review. This one is of Robert Siodmak's "The Spiral Staircase." Siodmak is probably best known for 1946's noir classic "The Killers," which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Direction, but 1945's "The Spiral Staircase" is also worth a watch on a dark and stormy night. 

"The Spiral Staircase"

Robert Siodmak (The Killers) fled Germany as the Third Reich rose to power so it's appropriate that he directed the 1946 thriller The Spiral Staircase, a turn-of-the-century serial killer thriller about a madman murdering women based on their mental and physical infirmities to cleanse the world of imperfections. Before emigrating, though, Siodmak was involved with the German expressionist movement and you can see all of its trademarks in Staircase: oblique camera angles, distorted compositions, a roving, subjective camera, and shots drenched with shadows.

Staircase was adapted from Ethel Lina's White's (The Lady Vanishes) novel "Some Must Watch," but the film is also clearly indebted to Freudian psychoanalysis and "The Birthmark," Nathaniel Hawthorne's disturbing short story of obsession. Siodmak literally drops us into the action with an overhead shot of the titular staircase that introduces us to the claustrophobic, Victorian mansion in which the heroine and audience will principally be confined for the next 83 minutes.

He then winks at us, Scream-style, by taking us to a hotel parlor where the audience is engrossed in a hand cranked silent film while the killer muffles his latest victim's futile screams upstairs. One of the patrons is Helen, the mute servant to a wealthy family, and the rest of the film stalks her as we try to figure out who amongst a Clue-ish cast of characters is out to get this scream queen who can't scream.

Siodmak directs with a panache that elevates Mel Dinelli's (The Window) potboiler script. The pic was filmed using leftover sets from Orson Wells' The Magnificent Ambersons and Siodmak similarly shoots with wide angle lenses to create a rich depth of field in which viewers focused on a foreground conversation might miss the killer's lightning strike silhouette in the background.

Staircase feels a bit like the darker half of Welles’ flick, with Siodmak employing composer Roy Webb, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and set decorator Darrell Silvera, all of whom worked on Welles’ film and earned their horror stripes on Val Lewton productions like Cat People and The Seventh Victim. What distinguishes Staircase from these Lewton scarers, though, is Siodmak's use of distortion and fisheye lenses to show us the killer's skewed perception of reality in which the mute heroine’s mouth is blotted out. At other times, the frame is filled with Psycho-esque closeups of the killer’s glowering eye accompanied by Webb’s gothic chords.

As Helen, Dorothy McGuire (Gentleman’s Agreement) pantomimes a wide range of emotions in a performance that’s almost the equal of Samantha Morton’s brilliant work in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. Ethel Barrymore (None But the Lonely Heart) matches her in an Oscar-nominated turn as the mansion's bed-ridden but cantankerous matriarch.

The black-and-white pic is presented in its original 1:33:1 ratio with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Besides a trailer for Secret Window, there are no special features, but the flick’s worth a look to see the foreshadowing of modern thrillers like Mute Witness and Jennifer 8 and the nascent use of modern horror techniques such as the creaking door and flittering candlelight. 



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