Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Kierreportaat / Spiraltrappan. US © 1945 RKO. P: Dore Schary. D: Robert Siodmak. SC: Mel Dinelli – based on the novel Some Must Watch (1933) by Ethel Lina White. DP: Nicholas Musuraca. AD: Albert S. D’Agostino, Jack Okey. Set dec: Darrell Silvera. Special effects: Vernon L. Walker. M: Roy Webb. M dir: C. Bakaleinikoff. Theremin: Samuel Hoffman. ED: Harry Marker, Harry Gerstad. C: Dorothy McGuire (Helen), George Brent (Prof. Warren), Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Warren), Kent Smith (Dr. Parry), Rhonda Fleming (Blanche), Gordon Oliver (Steve Warren), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Oates), Rhys Williams (Oates), Sara Allgood (nurse Barker), James Bell (constable). A RKO 1957 re-release print with Finnish / Swedish subtitles (n.c.). 84 min. Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Robert Siodmak's film noir cycle), 1 April 2012.

The Spiral Staircase starts with a scene in a silent movie show which confirms the worst prejudices about silent films. The story has been transferred into New England into the age of early cinema, before WWI, and we see a glimpse of a clumsy melodrama called The Kiss to the accompaniment of classical excerpts by a piano playing lady. After the refined accomplishments of Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect, and Uncle Harry at Universal Studios, Siodmak now worked for RKO and did this neo-Gothic Victorian thriller with blatant expressionistic effects and the expected repertory of motifs such as madness, a thunderstorm, a dark forest, a cursed house, cobwebs, gaslight, and danger in the cellar. The visual motifs of the spiral staircase and the reflections in the murderer's eye are efficiently realized. The most memorable image of the movie is the vision in which Helen has no mouth (shades of Dali and Buñuel). The theremin was still a novelty (1945 was its breakthrough year in Hollywood), and its eerie sound fits this movie very well. The Spiral Staircase is a powerful movie in which Siodmak knew how to operate with the great RKO team (Musuraca, D'Agostino, Walker, Webb) but it is less personal than the four films listed above. There is an anti-Fascist undercurrent in the interpretation: the serial killer eliminates women with defects, because "there is no room in the whole world for imperfection".

The Spiral Staircase was one of the prominent movies in which Ethel Barrymore returned to the screen.

This heavily used print looks like it's been duped from a viewing print. The contrast is not good in the beginning but gets better.

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