The Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon…

The spiral staircase
source: RKO Pictures

Well, this film sure is something.

If you look up the word,”thriller” in the dictionary this movie’s title would, surely, be right next to it.

Directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, and Ethel Barrymore The Spiral Staircase is a psychological film noir thriller that tells the story of Helen McCord, a mute woman working as a helping hand in a New England mansion. Even though things appear to be going smoothly from the average citizen’s point of view, appearances aren’t everything.

I would love to expand upon that point, but……. I can’t.

When I normally review a movie for a blogathon, I usually plot out the synopsis of the entire film, hoping to give you a sense of what happened.

This time, it’s slightly different.

The Spiral Staircase is such a unique film, I don’t think it would be right to spoil it for you. Instead of writing a full-fledged summary, I’ll discuss the main plot points of the film, then I’ll explain why the acting performances are positively astonishing.

The Spiral Staircase
source: RKO Pictures

Starting off with Dorothy McGuire, her heartbreaking portrayal of Helen is phenomenal.

You see, the movie’s plot revolves around a string of murders that are happening around the town where this mansion is located.

These not your ordinary murders, however.

No, whoever is doing the killing is specifically targeting women with disabilities, “afflictions” as the movie calls them, such as the kind that Helen has.

To make matter worse, one night during a thunderstorm, completely alone and devoid of help except for Mrs. Warren, the bedridden women she’s taking care of (wonderfully played by Ethel Barrymore) she’s stalked around the mansion by a mysterious man whose identity I will not reveal.

The Spiral Staircase2
source: RKO Pictures

Because of the horrifying circumstances I just described, throughout the film, McGuire is essentially required to only use her face to do the majority of the acting for her.

There were multiple moments in the movie where dialogue easily could’ve been shoehorned into the script but wasn’t needed because of McGuire‘s incredible ability to emote her face to reflect the mood of the scene.

Not only did Dorothy McGuire give us a serious master class in acting, Ethel Barrymore (one of the Barrymores this blogathon was inspired by) steals the show.

This is evident particularly at the climax of the film where tensions are high and the emotion is rampant. Barrymore‘s take on the deathly ill Mrs. Warren is one for the ages and definitely takes this movie to another dimension.

The Wonderful Directing

The Spiral Staircase 3
source: RKO Pictures

Now, that I’ve discussed the acting, let me turn my attention to the director, Robert Siodmak.

Holy Moly.

Quite frankly, I don’t think enough people know about this film, and that’s a shame because Siodmak gives us some fabulous cinematic shots that are pretty bizarre (in the best sense.) The interesting part about this is that though this movie may be a film noir, it’s also simultaneously a period piece – and a glorious one at that.

Combining a period piece with a film noir is a genius idea, but not an original one.

Yes, it’s been done before, and it’s very possible that other movies may have done it better, but, there’s something about the way Siodmak films and frames every shot with a purpose, that takes this movie from being good to great.

The shadows, the lowlights, and the atmosphere are all a testament to his directing – and it shows.

Conclusion

In the end, The Spiral Staircase is a wonderfully paced, acted, and directed film. The performances by McGuire and Barrymore are unquestionably the best ones in the movie, director Robert Siodmak sees this uses their talent and maxes out to its full potential.

And for that, I thank him.

 

 

If you would like to see more entries in this blogathon click: here.