The Spiral Staircase opens with this lovely homage to silent cinema. Director Siodmak takes great care with the setting in time–Nicholas Musuraca’s sumptuous cinematography helps–and then Spiral becomes a waiting game. Certainly if Siodmak took such great care with one sequence, he’ll return to that level of care again….
However, he does not. The rest of Spiral is exposition and contrivance. It takes place in the evening of the same day, with mute maid Dorothy McGuire vaguely convinced her life is in danger (she was at the pictures, but for no narrative reason). Siodmak and screenwriter Mel Dinelli don’t know what to do with a mute protagonist so they basically shove McGuire aside for the vocal supporting cast members. They do give her a love interest, a tepid Kent Smith, and one inexplicable daydream sequence.
The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic–George Brent, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Allgood and Gordon Oliver. Ethel Barrymore, as McGuire’s employer and friend, is okay. The material isn’t there for her. Dinelli doesn’t know how to structure his script, though he and Siodmak do pass time well. Until the final third, Spiral sails by. Maybe because, as I initially mentioned, one assumes Siodmak is going to do something sublime again.
The Roy Webb music is good, the editing from Harry W. Gerstad and Harry Marker is not. Once Siodmak gets inside the house where eighty percent of the story takes place, he’s infrequently exceptional. His inserts are awful.
Spiral is extremely disappointing.
Directed by Robert Siodmak; screenplay by Mel Dinelli, based on a novel by Ethel Lina White; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Harry W. Gerstad and Harry Marker; music by Roy Webb; produced by Dore Schary; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Dorothy McGuire (Helen Capel), George Brent (Professor Albert Warren), Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Warren), Kent Smith (Dr. Brian Parry), Rhonda Fleming (Blanche), Gordon Oliver (Steve Warren), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Oates), Sara Allgood (Nurse Barker), Rhys Williams (Mr. Oates), James Bell (The Constable) and Erville Alderson (Dr. Harvey).