In turn-of-the-century New England, a mute woman named Helen (Dorothy McGuire) attends a (silent) film shown at a local inn. While she’s there, an unnamed woman (Myrna Dell) who limps (“a cripple”), an inn resident, is strangled by a man who’d hidden in her closet. This follows the murder of another woman, a “simple-minded creature.”
The new doctor in town, young Dr. Perry (Kent Smith), on his way back from a house call, stops by to see if he can be of any assistance with the investigation of the deceased. The old town doctor (Erville Alderson) assures him there’s nothing he can do unless he’d good enough to bring the dead back.
On his way back, Dr. Perry comes across Helen walking home from the movie. He offers her a ride, knowing there’s a dangerous man about killing disabled women. The good doctor also tells Helen he knows of a place in Boston where help is available for people in her situation. Helen’s muteness is not organic but a result of trauma when her parents died in a house fire. It’s not the last time the good doctor will be sticking his nose in her business.
Helen lives as a companion/nurse’s assistant to the elderly and ill Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), leaving her free to disregard the ministrations of Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood). The household also contains Mrs. Warren’s stepson, Professor Warren (George Brent), who has looked after her all these years, and her ne’er-do-well younger son, Stephen (Gordon Oliver), who has recently returned from Europe. Just to make things interesting (…and confusing), Stephen is having an affair with his stepbrother’s secretary and old flame, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming).
Mrs. Warren is not happy to see Stephen. In fact, she tells him he might as well go back to Europe. The bad things always happen when he’s around.
I frankly felt uneasy with the premise: a serial killer picking off women with disabilities. In a world of sick SOBs, this is sick SOB. Even the good doctor, whom Helen at one point fantasizes about marrying in an elaborate sequence, is convinced he can conquer the mute woman’s inability to speak by pushing her over the edge. Helen is menaced throughout the movie: a figure watches her enter the house the night Dr. Perry drops her off from the movie at the inn. Mrs. Warren tells her she is in danger and that she must leave the house. Of course, this all occurs during an unrelenting thunderstorm.
In one scene, the villain has poor Helen trapped on a staircase landing in front of a full-length mirror. The bad’un taunts her for her muteness and for being “weak.” She turns to examine herself in the mirror. I almost screamed, why not just push the sicko down the stairs? Her life is at stake. It’s okay to forego ladylike manners and introspection for a little while. Appearances only mean so much when someone wants to strangle you.
While there are a couple of see ‘em comings, this was a nicely suspenseful film, full of red herrings. This is a deadly serious film. There are no (intentional) absurdist moments, albeit there is comic relief, such as when the maid steals a bottle of brandy under Professor Warren’s nose. Mostly, though, the feel of the movie is gothic, heavy, and the viewer knows Helen is in danger. Even the people who are being kind to her—for her own good—do so with a heavy hand.
Ethel Barrymore was nominated for her role as Mrs. Warren for Best Supporting Actress in 1947.
The screenplay is based on a book titled Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (1876-1944). The original book does not involve a spiral staircase, a prop the movie borrowed from The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart, which has been adapted for stage and screen several times, including 1930’s The Bat Whispers. Although forgotten now, White was a famous British crime novelist in her day. Another of her books, The Wheel Spins, became Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
Title: The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Mel Dinelli (screenplay), Ethel Lina White (novel)
Dorothy McGuire … Helen
George Brent … Professor Warren
Ethel Barrymore … Mrs. Warren
Kent Smith … Dr. Parry
Rhonda Fleming … Blanche
Released: February 7, 1949
Length: 1 hour, 23 minutes