Silver Screen Standards: Storms and Silence in The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Silver Screen Standards: Storms and Silence in The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Gothic atmosphere churns tempestuously in Robert Siodmak’s 1946 mystery, The Spiral Staircase, with a terrific storm in the natural world that mirrors the psychological turbulence experienced by both heroine and killer. This moody, tense thriller teems with menace as an elusive murderer stalks women with disabilities, but its protagonist, played to great effect by Dorothy McGuire, is no mere victim, despite her inability to speak. Ethel Barrymore gives a particularly rich performance as the ailing matriarch of the fractious Warren family, but the supporting cast is full of iconic players, including George Brent, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming, Elsa Lanchester, and Sara Allgood. A true classic, The Spiral Staircase rewards repeat visits once its central mystery has been revealed, leaving the viewer free to appreciate the themes and performances that elevate the whole beyond the old dark house genre with which it shares many of its foundational elements.

The Spiral Staircase, George Brent and Dorothy McGuire
Professor Warren (George Brent) warns Helen (Dorothy McGuire) to be careful as the number of murdered women increases.

McGuire stars as the silent but capable Helen, a young woman left unable to speak after an earlier traumatic event. Helen works as a companion to the elderly, temperamental Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who begins to fear for Helen’s safety as disabled young women in the town turn up murdered one after another. Mrs. Warren’s affection for Helen is countered by her disappointment in the younger Warrens, both her stepson, Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), and her feckless biological son, Steve (Gordon Oliver), who has returned to the house after a long absence. While Helen attends to Mrs. Warren, the half-brothers clash constantly, especially over Steve’s romantic pursuit of Albert’s secretary, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming). Helen’s suitor, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), wants to get her away from the Warren house in the belief that specialists in Boston might be able to restore her speech, but his patients and the weather conspire to delay Helen’s departure until a violent storm traps her in the house where a killer lies in wait.

The Spiral Staircase Ethel Barrymore
Mrs. Warren might be elderly and infirm, but with Ethel Barrymore in the role she’s a powerful presence.

The storm makes plenty of noise throughout the movie, but silence also has power, as McGuire’s emotive performance proves. In many ways it’s a throwback to the silent era, with Helen communicating through gestures and body language instead of speech. We first see her attending a silent film screening, which helps to set the era of the story but also prepares us for McGuire’s performance. In every scene, McGuire keeps us focused on her heroine without a single line of dialogue, no mean feat in a movie where everyone else talks. Helen constantly reveals her lively nature, intelligence, and sense of humor, and she’s never a passive victim or less than a fully fledged individual. She handles Mrs. Warren with grace and patience, daydreams about marrying Dr. Parry, and fights for her life when the killer strikes. Of course, Helen’s forced silence is a crucial plot point because it prevents her from calling out for help or using the telephone, and it’s her difference that attracts the deranged killer in the first place. Dr. Parry’s obsession with curing her seems overbearing and even cruel at times, his excuse being that her silence is purely psychological and not physical, but modern perspectives on disability and ableism push back against the idea that Helen needs Dr. Parry to “fix” her. That critique also exists within the movie, as Steve Warren actually questions the doctor’s actions, while the insane killer views women like Helen as deserving of death merely because of their disabilities.

The Spiral Staircase, Elsa Lanchester and George Brent, Candle
Housekeeper Mrs. Oates (Elsa Lanchester) accompanies Professor Warren to the wine cellars in one of many scenes featuring women holding candles.

In addition to Helen’s psychological trauma, the movie also probes the causes and effects of the emotional trauma experienced by the two Warren sons, both of whom were disappointments to their hypermasculine father. Helen’s childhood suffering when her family died in a fire was acute and sudden, but Albert and Steve have endured years of emotional neglect and abuse, and both are damaged by it. Although the late Mr. Warren despised his sons for their perceived “weakness,” Mrs. Warren perpetuates the abuse in her treatment of the two men, proving that mothers can be dangerous advocates for toxic masculinity, too. Throughout the house there are symbols of this deadly heritage in the form of hunting trophies, especially tigers, all of them emphasizing a “kill or be killed” attitude toward strength and power. The troubled history of the Warren family casts a Gothic gloom over the house akin to that of the House of Usher or Wuthering Heights, and it gives Mrs. Warren’s warnings to Helen a palpable sense of urgency. Nothing good can happen in this house full of secrets, shadows, and festering wounds, and the building violence eventually breaks open like the storm raging overhead. The titular spiral staircase, a central feature of the Warren house, suggests the twisted hearts that lie at the center of the story, and we repeatedly see women carrying candles as they descend into the psychological underworld embodied by the mansion’s dark cellars. What – and who – they find at the bottom reveals the extent to which the elder Warrens’ sins have come home to roost. This densely packed symbolism really merits repeated viewings of the picture so that every detail and subtle motif can be fully appreciated.

The Spiral Staircase, Dorothy McGuire, Stairs
Shadows loom as Helen descends the titular spiral staircase in the Warren family’s mansion.

Don’t try to figure out the killer’s identity based on the eye repeatedly seen in closeup; that voyeuristic orb belongs to director Robert Siodmak himself. You can see more of Siodmak’s work, if not his eye, in Phantom Lady (1944), The Suspect (1944), The Killers (1946), and Criss Cross (1949). Dorothy McGuire also stars in The Enchanted Cottage (1945), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947). Stage legend Ethel Barrymore earned her second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Spiral Staircase, having already won the award for None but the Lonely Heart (1944). She would be nominated again for The Paradine Case (1947) and Pinky (1949), but I also really like her in the lesser-known Moss Rose (1947). For a thematic double feature, try pairing The Spiral Staircase with Johnny Belinda (1948), Wait Until Dark (1967), or even the 2018 Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water (2017).

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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One Response to Silver Screen Standards: Storms and Silence in The Spiral Staircase (1946)

  1. ohnny Belinda, Wait Until Dark, and The Shape of Water all share thematic elements of suspense, vulnerability, and overcoming adversity in the face of danger. It’s a perfect way to delve deeper into the themes explored in The Spiral Staircase.

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