In the 1940s Hollywood produced a number of excellent period thrillers, including John Brahm’s The Lodger, about Jack the Ripper, George Cukor’s Gaslight and Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (all 1944). Perhaps the best of the batch is The Spiral Staircase, made by German filmmaker Robert Siodmak during his stay in the States after he had fled the Nazis. (In Germany, in 1933, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Goebbels, denounced Siodmak for his anti-Nazi documentaries.) Made in 1945 and set thirty years earlier, the film is about a young woman, a mute since the childhood fire that orphaned her, who invites concern that she may become the next victim of a serial killer who has been targeting variously handicapped females in the area. One of the eeriest and most disquieting films ever made, The Spiral Staircase is in fact a masked allegory of the passage of silent cinema into sound: a momentous theme elusively linked to America’s taking stock of itself after the Second World War. It is by far, also, the most Teutonic of Siodmak’s American films, and quite possibly, along with Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s silent Sunrise (1927), the most Teutonic of all American films.
Helen is the name of the protagonist, who works as a maidservant for the Warren family, a scientist and his ailing, bedridden stepmother, in a rural, heavily wooded part of New England. The film opens in town, however—a small town. Helen is in attendance at the showing of a film, in a hotel, in a room, behind a drape, off the lobby. The film is William Heise’s silent The Kiss. This is an 1896 film, so we’re proceeding back into the past by decades: In a 1946 film that is set in 1916, people we are watching are themselves watching a film from two decades earlier. The jerky, flickering silent film being projected onto the screen-within-the-screen, with live piano accompaniment, is advertised in the hotel lobby as an example of the new marvel of cinema, and this stresses the remoteness of the town, to which the newest things arrive so late, and this in turn stresses the even greater remoteness of the Warren estate, to which Helen will soon return, way outside of town. More importantly, by immediately fashioning us into voyeurs (film watchers watching film watchers in the film), Siodmak establishes voyeurism as a central theme: voyeurism—the impetus behind cinema. (In addition, the hotel clerk and two children, in the lobby, are peeking through the curtain to see the show.) Finally, silent cinema is invoked in another way: A closeup of Helen reveals that she dearly resembles young Lillian Gish, who often played girls in distress such as the one Helen is in this film. The actress playing Helen, who elsewhere scarcely resembles Gish at all, is coiffed, made up and lit to look like “the mother of the movies,” America’s premier silent film actress.
The camera slowly, stealthily rises upstairs to reveal one of the hotel’s boarders in her room: a young cripple. She has taken a dress out of her closet, and as she turns away to don it the camera penetrates the closet to find an eye watching her—the eye, in closeup, of the killer. Eerie music underscores the eeriness of the voyeurism that is holding the other voyeurs: us. A flip of the lens allows us to see the girl putting on her dress as her soon-to-be strangler sees her: distorted; dehumanized. Siodmak, in a master stroke, thus relates the voyeur’s eye to the eye of the camera to the eye of the audience, us, as we watch, as enthralled as the audience below in the hotel, what the motion-picture camera has produced. Because of the silence (except for the music), we have been enveloped in a silent film within the sound film The Spiral Staircase, and this establishes the two modes, silent cinema and post-silent cinema, as two of the film’s thematic coordinates. The silence is about to be broken. We do not see the murderer, and indeed the victim herself is lost in shadow; but we do see her hands cross in agony at the point of strangulation. Something topples in the room, and those downstairs, including the clerk who investigates, hear it. The silent film being shown has been disrupted.
This bravura opening is magical; it is so in yet another way. Siodmak is playing with time, as the movies do, and in a startling way. In total, The Kiss is about a minute long. That’s all: just a minute. Yet the shots below, rising and upstairs stretch this time to a seeming eternity attuned to the murderer’s obsessional gaze. This method, especially with the flip of the lens that discloses the strangler’s vantage, suggests, then, the state of his mind, the depth of his psychosis. This parallels what is going on downstairs with Helen; for the kiss between a man and a woman that she is watching on screen discloses her own aptitude for romance. Helen has fallen in love, we shall soon learn, with Dr. Parry, and he, playing the role of her protector, says he has fallen in love with her. He wants to take her to Boston, promising her the possibility of treatment that might restore her voice.
After the local constable has told the movie patrons to go on home, Dr. Parry plans on taking Helen home; but a child’s urgent plea for him to attend medically to his father waylays their course and diverts the good doctor’s plan, and he lets Helen off at the crossroads still a ways from the Warren mansion. It is daylight, but it quickly grows dark as thunder rumbles in the air. Helen must make her way through a forest: for me, one of the most frightening (except for the sound effects) silent passages in all of cinema, and also, in its portrait of these seemingly impenetrable trees, one of the most beautiful renderings of nature in all of cinema: a passage of sinister enchantment. Helen picks up a fallen branch for protection; is it the rabbit she heard, or is someone following her, keeping her in his gaze? Almost inexplicably, suddenly she is out of the forest and, rained upon, walking the length of a seemingly endless fence, which she ripples with the tree branch in order to generate sound that might assuage her fear. As she approaches the door to enter the Warren mansion, she drops her key in a massive puddle of rain. Behind her, someone is stalking her, whom we see from the back. Finally, she retrieves the key and presumably locks danger outside. However, an open window that the cook insists she had shut stresses the precarious nature of all shows of safety in Helen’s midst. As with Dr. Parry’s speaking to her in his carriage, the cook’s chatter provides contrast to Helen’s muteness, which more and more seems to encapsulate her vulnerability.
I am going no farther with the plot, especially since the film at least goes through the motions of being a whodunit, with cheats along the way in the form of red herrings and the fact that Siodmak used several different cast members for those not-so-tell-tale closeups of the murderer’s lurking eye. But two sets of visual imagery contribute more to the film’s thematic development than the story does. Both are inside the Warren house. One set of images consists of mirrors; the other consists of staircases, including the spiral one leading to the basement, behind which the killer hides, waiting to strangle Helen. Both sets of images suggest the mind of the killer and its processes.
At one point in this film of many mirrors, Helen has stopped at the huge mirror on the intermediate landing en route to tending to Mrs. Warren in her upstairs bedroom. Stalked by him, she is being watched by the killer, who sees her image in the mirror, but with the mouth missing: the sign of Helen’s muteness, her imperfection. It’s a marvelous subjective image: the killer watching Helen looking at herself in the mirror, but seeing not what she sees, but what his twisted mind shows—which, disconcertingly, is what we also see, as though we were watching a movie within the movie. This interior movie is silent, and on one level it suggests Helen’s simplicity, meaning, the uncluttered nature of her being, for in fact Helen is alert and highly intelligent. On another level, though, the silent movie within the sound movie suggests the simplistic mind of the killer, which cannot grapple with either ambiguity or human imperfection. Other mirrors, unlike this one rather more glimpsed than stared at, suggest the extent to which everyone in the house is viewed in a reduced or distorted manner by the psychotic peeping tom, and at a remove suggesting the killer’s remove from reality.
This and other stairways in the house—the killer will eventually be shot to death on one—are projections of the killer’s mind. The film’s visual centerpiece is, of course, the spiral staircase: the symbol of his insanity. It’s a thing shrouded in gloom and darkness.
The overwhelmingly moving finale finds Helen rediscovering her voice on her second attempt to phone for help. The camera withdraws in a final shot that sums up her loss of the innocence that her muteness, in part, represented. In terms of the film’s argument, the withdrawing camera, which Max Ophüls would use for a more complex meaning at the close of Lola Montès (1955), solemnly and sadly leaves silent cinema back in the past, in a time that intervening American involvement in two world wars has rendered ever more remote.
The Spiral Staircase is well-acted in the main, although two of the performances are brilliant: Dorothy McGuire as Helen, and Ethel Barrymore as Mrs. Warren. Each does a heartrending job, and both are physically amazing. Mel Dinelli, who would contribute to the script of Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment (1949), adapted here a novel, Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White. Siodmak’s greatest collaborators, though, are McGuire, Barrymore, and his superlative black-and-white cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, who also cinematographed Tourneur’s The Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (1947). Back in (West) Germany, Siodmak would make a famous film about a real-life madman who murdered some eighty women between 1923 and 1943—a period roughly coinciding with the span between when The Spiral Staircase was set and when it was made. This is The Devil Strikes at Midnight (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam—literally, At Night, When the Devil Comes, 1957), an account of an Aryan’s crime spree knowledge about which Hitler had suppressed after having the Gestapo round up the perpetrator and having him killed, all to avoid embarrassment rather than to save lives or meet the claims of justice. In a fine career that also included The Killers (1946), a liberal expansion of Ernest Hemingway’s story and the film that made Burt Lancaster a star, The Spiral Staircase and The Devil Strikes at Midnight would remain Siodmak’s two outstanding fictional achievements.
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