Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Spiral Staircase

I love it when I discover great movies that I've never heard of. After years of thinking, "I have to see this movie! I have to see that movie!" I put together a list of things to see. For a long time, I was just concentrating on Oscar nominees. Sadly, a number of the early ones are impossible to get on home video, and a few are lost forever. But then a book came out; an awesome monstrosity called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. And at first I thought I'd see how many I had seen. It wasn't many. So I put the entire list in my computer, combined it with the Oscar list, as well as the most recent version of the New York Times' 1000 Best Movies Ever Made and had me a monster list of films to see. I've been working my way through it chronologically for the past six years and am up to 1946 (hey, I watch other things too!). The list is full of movies everyone knows of, but every now and then a title comes up that I have never heard of and have no reference for. One such movie was The Spiral Staircase.

I put this movie on and expected a passable black and white thriller. But from the opening sequence, I was hooked. The plot involves a young mute servant girl who is being stalked by a serial killer who preys on women with deformities or imperfections. What could come across as cheesy never does; it maintains a tone and atmosphere of suspense that rivals Hitchcock. Silence of the Lambs for me is a film that always gives me an immediate sense of tension no matter what part I come into it or how many times I've seen it; it just exudes a tone. This movie does the same thing for me.

The opening sequence is brilliant. First, we see the protagonist at a silent movie screening. The choice to set this movie early in the 20th Century in the era of silent films was spot on; the world of the silent is the world of our protagonist. The whole first sequence in fact is relatively wordless. We are shown the killer's eye, but nothing else. The voyeurism here is strong, and yet the killer is otherwise kept off-camera to maintain the mystery of his identity. So many thrillers and horror films may owe their technique to this movie. Each killing also includes a point of view shot of the killer where we first zoom into his eye, and then see things as he sees it. This is effective. Modern films that try similar techniques tend to relish in making the audience the killer; taking more joy in the kill than in survival. What I liked about Spiral Staircase is that nowhere did I lose sympathy for the victims.

Dorothy McGuire does a great job portraying the mute Helen. Rather than overly exaggerated pantomime like one would see in a silent film, she gives an honest portrayal of one whose daily routine is a series of gestures and small nods. She exists in her own world, despite being surrounded by others. When she becomes frantic, she doesn't have to run around like a lunatic; she is just restrained enough to be believable and never silly. She actually made me begin to think about how nice a relationship with a sweet, quiet woman could be. One of the most interesting digressions for her character is when the film takes us inside HER mind. She imagines dating and ultimately wedding the man of her dreams, but this becomes a nightmare when the minister at the altar asks her to say, "I do," but she cannot.

I don't want to spoil this movie for anyone who has not seen it. I also am aware there is a 1975 remake which I have not seen, but have a feeling it would be lacking. If anyone reading has not seen this movie, it was a real gem and I'm glad to have discovered it. The little mysteries, the side characters, the unique protagonist, even the crazy old bed-ridden woman who seems to have a kind of second sight add up to a forgotten masterpiece. I've compared it to Hitchcock earlier. Honestly, this is better than some Hitchcock of this period. Shadow of a Doubt is great, but some of his other '40s films suffer. Notorious was released the same years as this film, and I would easily take The Spiral Staircase over Notorious any day.

Oh, but don't worry too much about the staircase of the title. It has almost nothing to do with the movie. It just sounds good.

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