Today I took a gander at director Robert Siodmak's 1946 American Gothic masterpiece, The Spiral Staircase. The word that immediately comes to mind is "remarkable".
Early in the 20th century, a black-gloved serial killer is strangling young women with various "afflictions", such as disfigurements and other handicaps. Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire), mute since experiencing a traumatic childhood event, is likely the killer's next victim.
During one long, dark, stormy night, Helen is holed up in the Warren Mansion, where she's been tending to the bedridden Warren matriarch (Ethyl Barrymore). Before long, the killer is in the house as well- who is it? Will Helen survive, unable to call for help?
I can say, unequivocally, that I've never seen a more beautiful black and white film. Every shot in the movie, from the very first (the opening sequence is easily on par with Hitchcock's best) to the last, feels deliberate. Each moment throughout is staged and lit for maximum effect, and the cinematography (by Nicholas Musuraca) is astonishing in both focal and tonal depths. The print quality of the DVD is pristine, and I felt myself simply gawking at the screen.
Performances throughout the film range from serviceable to outstanding, in particular that of Dorothy McGuire, who manages to hold her own against the formidable Ethyl Barrymore- all without saying a word. McGuire is more than capable of conveying all the emotions required and hitting all the right notes with facial expressions and body language. Again, I could only gawk.
The Spiral Staircase is a suspenseful little gothic flick with some tense sequences- there's romance, thunderstorms, a spooky old mansion, cobwebs, a bedridden old woman, and a black-gloved killer lurking in the shadows. As a horror fan, it's easy to find traces of later horror films in evidence here; the film is undoubtedly a precursor to the gialli films of Dario Argento and company.
For all the obvious achievements of The Spiral Staircase, though, I was left emotionally unmoved. As I was watching it, I felt as if I was looking at a piece of art that I could admire aesthetically- in an academic fashion. Everything about the film was masterful, from the acting to the directing to the set design to the photography, and yet I wasn't invested beyond a simple sort of appreciation. It's tough to rate a movie like this. Should you see it? Yes. Maybe it'll affect you differently, on more levels...I don't know. It sure was pretty.