Friday, May 06, 2016

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak)

Twisted Sister

 Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase, an oddly neglected noir, begins with an act of shared voyeurism: people gathered at a hotel's darkened dance hall to watch the latest of novelties, a motion picture (D.W. Griffith's 1912 silent The Sands of Dee, doubling as William Heise's 1896 The Kiss*). Siodmak's camera rises to the floor above to witness another wordless drama unfold; a young woman with a slight limp preparing for bed. She opens her closet door, pulls out a nightgown, steps back; the camera moves in on a row of hung dresses, and Siodmak cuts to the closeup of an eye, zooms in on the eye ostensibly glaring at the woman though we aren't fooled for a second: the eye is really glaring at us, daring us to cry out a warning to her. 

A pair of hands struggle to find their way out of the nightgown's sleeves. Suddenly they flutter like a pair of distressed sparrows; on the makeshift screen down below a drowned woman is carried out of the ocean. The watching audience hears a loud thump and crash and looks up; the movie is stopped, the noise investigated. 

*(Interesting trying to winkle out the reason for the substitution: presumably Siodmak wanted to cut from the image of a woman strangling to the image of the woman drowned in The Sands of Dee, same time he needed an excuse for a woman to undress above a movie audience--hence the hotel ballroom repurposed as movie theater, with player piano lightly burlesquing the melodrama both onscreen and above the audience's heads)

Often cited as one of the best thrillers Alfred Hitchcock never directed, Siodmak's film (adapted from Ethel Lina White's crime fiction Some Must Watch) is also arguably one of the earliest if not the earliest example of a thriller whose potential victim is handicapped.** Beautiful Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is the mute live-in companion of wealthy Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) in the latter's mammoth Victorian mansion. She's the object of either pity or desire--pitied by nearly everyone (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester as handyman and housekeeper Mr. and Mrs. Oates; Rhonda Fleming as Blanche, the harassed secretary; George Brent and Gordon Oliver as Professor Albert Warren, the mansion's acting patriarch, and his dissipated brother Steve; Sara Allgood as Mrs. Warren's sorely tried nurse; James Bell as the dim local constable), desired by at least two (Kent Smith as the blandly handsome Dr. Parry and, presumably, the killer). People talk past her or condescendingly to her, often putting words and thoughts in her unspeaking mouth; her eyes suggest a pained forbearance that suffers silently their presumption.

 **(In the novel Helen is normal, but the changes wrought by screenwriter Mel Dinelli don't feel like mere gimmicks to render the heroine more vulnerable: targeting disabled women is made part of the killer's M.O., and the contrast between  flawed and flawless, weak and strong becomes a major theme). 

Parry's professed love for Helen seems particularly problematic: at one point he bullies her, hoping to replicate the trauma that rendered her mute and cure her, only to end up seeming needlessly cruel. You wonder at the doctor's methods--perhaps we're meant to wonder at the couple's future prospects; perhaps we're meant to doubt the effectiveness of any 'normal' person no matter how well-meaning trying to help. In any case Dr. Blandly Handsome seems less bland after this scene, but not in a flattering way. 

Only one other person is able to see Helen as a whole (as opposed to defective) human being. Barrymore's Mrs. Warren is a monumental lady, every bit as storied and detailed as her mansion, and other than Helen the most perceptive person in the household. Unlike those who like to guess at Helen's thoughts and feelings, Mrs. Warren talks to her as if she were perfectly capable of responding (the old woman has apparently learned--as do we, eventually--to read the girl's expressions and body language). She bosses Helen around but her bossiness is more playful than abusive; without uttering an explicit word the two sketch a great mutual affection, with Helen willing to spoil Mrs. Warren rotten and Mrs. Warren so worried for her friend ('companion' feels inadequate, somehow) that she urges Helen to flee, for safety's sake

One other major character: the mansion itself, dressed in elaborate tapestries, lined with intricate railings, ornamented with massive mirrors that double the size of the cavernous spaces beyond. But Siodmak does more than clutter his sets with carvings and bric-a-brac; the house breathes, its inhabitants constantly being startled and oppressed by banging shutters, creaking joists, vast velvety shadows punctured by lightning (you think of a darkly dozing brain jolted by electrical impulses--nightmares, maybe?)

And serving as the house's immobile yet taut ganglion, its central intelligence, sits Warren in her wide canopied bed, a black widow feeling the fibers of her farflung web for evil and possible danger. At one point she takes in all the people surrounding her and narrows her gaze: "There's been another murder hasn't there?" she guesses. Dropped jaws all around.

Siodmak--to some measure unfairly, I feel--is often considered Hitchcock's low-budget acolyte, but I would cite at least one other major influence: Fritz Lang, master not just of noirish lighting but of expressive use of architecture. More so than even Hitchcock (who I submit borrowed the stairs and giant eye closeup for his late masterpiece Vertigo, and a diminished version of the mansion for his Psycho), Siodmak was skilled at mood and setting, at executing a suspense setpiece fully integrated into the character-driven plot (watch the sequence early on when Helen is caught in a rainstorm--the rattle of stick on iron fence; the howling wind the seething rain; the pan past a tree the flash reveal of a hidden stalker who moves, pauses. Why lunge towards Helen then suddenly stop?).

A common complaint by most viewers (skip the next four paragraphs if you haven't seen the film!): it's easy to guess the killer's identity. I submit that this in fact isn't a flaw--that the film is more concerned with creating plausibly memorable characters than intricate narrative puzzles. Siodmak (cuing Hitchcock, finally) chooses suspense over surprise--the film's climax begins with Helen's dawning realization, followed by a beautifully demented little speech about weakness and imperfection that, incidentally, dovetails perfectly with what we know of the killer's family background. Why did he hesitate in the rainstorm? Because Helen would be easier to kill inside, in the privacy of their shared home.   

The resulting cat-and-mouse game is beautifully orchestrated, from Helen descending the basement stairs (with the killer waiting below) to Helen trying to catch the attention of the constable at the front gate--the latter drawing parallels between the heroine's inability to call for help and our earlier inability to warn her of danger (and before that, our inability to warn the lame girl in the film's opening of her danger). Siodmak succeeds as few have done in making Helen the audience's--our--surrogate: all huge gorgeous eyes and no way to relieve the tension by crying out our fear, our horror. 

Despite which she's not helpless; she doesn't panic. She makes mostly smart choices, going for a gun, going for outside help, going for an imprisoned ally, improvising when all prove out of reach. She delays the inevitable as much as she can, but when the inevitable finally approaches it's Mrs. Warren  (in a beautifully composed shot that looks down the staircase like a train tunnel, the three transfixed in the train's unstoppable headlights) who evens the odds. With all her matriarchal authority Mrs. Warren determines who is ultimately weak and who ultimately strong, paying a terrible price in return.

I find it significant that the film ends not with the young lovers' reunion but with Helen on the phone, speaking for the first time; her voice is soft, halting, her words telegraphed: "Dr. Parry, come. It's I--Helen." Why the weeping? Partly I suspect a body response to the sustained state of terror; partly a realization of the gift given to her, the terrible price paid (more influence on Vertigo?); partly anguish over losing the one person who truly understands her (Dr. Parry being a poor substitute). The camera pulls discreetly away, leaving her to her despair. 
Siodmak was a master filmmaker, a sorely underrated one, and this, I submit, was one of his best: the deftly sketched portrait of a brave pair of women--one bedridden, the other mute--looking out for each other in a threatening misogynistic world. Great noir thriller, absolutely.

First published in Businessworld, 4.29.16


Anonymous said...

Excellent review of one of my favorite Hollywood films. Musuraca's work here is one of the peaks of 40s cinematography. And it's so perfectly acted. This is the only role I've seen George Brent in; given his uninspiring reputation, I was surprised how good he was.

Noel Vera said...

Thankee! Looked over Brent's filmography--after seeing him here I'm surprised he isn't in more memorable roles (who was he in Jezebel? In The Rains Came?)