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With: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming, Gordon Oliver, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Allgood, Rhys Williams, James Bell
Written by: Mel Dinelli, based on a novel by Ethel Lina White
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 83
Date: 02/06/1946

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Step Talk

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase starts off brilliantly, with its mute heroine, Helen (Dorothy McGuire), watching a silent movie, while upstairs, a woman is murdered. The pushy Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) offers to drive her home through a pounding rainstorm, to the huge estate where she lives and works. As she approaches the door, a mysterious figure watches her.

Unfortunately, that's about it. The rest of this movie feels more like a play, entirely stage bound, and populated by theatrical types that talk a lot. Helen is employed as a live-in companion to the elderly, bed-ridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). There's also Mrs. Warren's son Steven (Gordon Oliver), her professor stepson Albert (George Brent), and several servants, the sauced housekeeper Mrs. Oates (Elsa Lanchester), her complaining handyman husband (Rhys Williams), a secretary, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who must put up with Steven's relentless aggressive flirting, and a much-abused nurse (Sara Allgood).

A serial killer is on the loose, and it's a good bet that (to quote Ed Wood) someone's responsible. It's odd that a master of shadowy, doomed film noir like Siodmak, who also had experience in horror, would make such a stagy, talky, interior film. Certainly, The Spiral Staircase has its moments, but it feels stuck most of the time. (Even the spiral staircase itself is barely even shown.) Fans of old-time thrillers will probably get a kick out of it, but it's doubtful that it'll be ascending to the top of any all-time-best lists anytime soon.

For some reason, Ethel Barrymore received the movie's only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, even though she never moves from the bed; she gets a lot of snarky, cranky dialogue, and she is a lot of fun. She had recently won the award for her supporting role in None But the Lonely Heart, and she was probably still fresh in the Academy's collective minds.

Kino Lorber released this in a new, restored Blu-ray, transferred from a 4K scan. It includes a commentary track by historian Sarah Smith, a radio broadcast of the same story, and a trailer. The disc also includes optional English subtitles.

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