The Spiral Staircase

dir. Robert Siodmak

TIFF Cinematheque - Hollywood Classics

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A mute woman who works as a nurse in a gloomy old mansion fears that she has been targeted by a serial killer in this classic Gothic thriller.


"Superb thriller . . . Hitchcock couldn't have bettered the causal mastery with which the opening defines not just time and place . . . one of the undoubted masterpieces of the Gothic mode" (Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide). Decades before slasher movies made the killer-POV a genre cliché, Robert Siodmak shocked audiences by employing that same device in this perennially scary take on the "old dark house" Gothic. Struck mute by childhood trauma, Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire, in a role that Joan Crawford had desperately pursued) tends to wealthy Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) in a gloomy old mansion whose spiral staircase seems an image of the twisted mind that lurks in its shadows. When Helen learns that three women with physical "afflictions" have been murdered nearby, she fears that she will become the next victim, just as a thunderstorm conveniently arrives to test her qualms. Siodmak masterfully screws up the tension by manipulating point of view, while Nicholas Musuraca's noir-ish compositions turn what might have been a lurid thriller into something stylish and insinuating; alarmed when he heard that the film was being compared to Hitchcock, Siodmak should instead have revelled in the analogy.