The Barrymores are a storied Hollywood dynasty. Siblings Lionel, John, and Ethel all began their careers on the stage in the late nineteenth century (1901 for John) and began appearing in silent film during the 1910s. While Lionel and John embraced Hollywood and made a large number of films, Ethel preferred the stage on Broadway. It wasn’t until the 1940s when Ethel was already in her 60s that she started taking on more film roles. She even won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her 1944 film, None but the Lonely Heart.
In 1946, Ethel appeared in my favorite Robert Siodmak film noir, The Spiral Staircase. Siodmak is one of my all-time favorite film noir directors. Siodmak made so many fantastic noir: Criss Cross (1949), The Killers (1946), Phantom Lady (1944), The Dark Mirror (1946), and Cry of the City (1948). Siodmak is so adept at using all the noir tropes to create these very atmospheric, moody films. Who can forget the image of Franchot Tone’s seemingly glowing hands in Phantom Lady, or the smoke-filled heist of Criss Cross? In The Spiral Staircase, Siodmak literally uses a spiraling staircase as the focal point for the film’s tense scenes.
Dorothy McGuire stars in The Spiral Staircase as a young mute woman, Helen, living in 1906 Vermont. She is mute due to childhood trauma. When Helen was a child, she witnessed her parents’ death in a fire. She has been unable to speak since. At the beginning of the film, Helen is attending a silent film screening at a local inn. During the film, a crippled woman is murdered in her room by an unknown assailant hiding in her closet. This woman’s murder is the third such murder in the community.
Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), a friend of Helen’s, was also at the inn and drives her home to her employer’s residence. Helen is a live-in servant for the invalid, Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Mrs. Warren’s stepson Albert (George Brent), her son Steven (Gordon Oliver), her staff Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester), her secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and her Nurse (Sara Algood) all live at the home as well.
As Helen walks up the driveway toward the home, we spot a cloaked figure watching from a distance. When Helen arrives home, she finds Mrs. Oates in the kitchen discussing the latest murder in the town. Mrs. Oates expresses fear that Helen will be targeted as the serial killer’s MO seems to be targeting disabled, i.e. defenseless, women. Helen is mute due to psychological trauma. If she’s attacked, she may not be able to scream for help.
Mrs. Warren is bedridden with failing health, however, she is still feisty and sharp. Her hatred of her nurse is hilarious. Mrs. Warren doesn’t mince words when letting her nurse know how much she dislikes her. However, Mrs. Warren has a much better relationship with Helen. I got the sense that Mrs. Warren either empathized with her or felt some sort of protective feeling over her well-being. Mrs. Warren encourages Dr. Parry to take Helen to to Boston with him and see if he can help her through her trauma to regain her voice.
Throughout the remainder of the film, Helen’s paranoia and heightened sense of danger continues to increase as it becomes increasingly obvious that someone is targeting her.
Ethel Barrymore is amazing in this film. I love her performances. She always plays a stoic, no-nonsense, wise woman. In this film, even though her character is supposed to be physically weak and other characters just see her as a burden, she is the strongest one in the film. She has one glorious moment of triumph in this film. Another fantastic Ethel Barrymore performance is as Bogart’s friend and supporter, Margaret Garrison in Deadline, U.S.A.
I know that this is the Ethel Barrymore blogathon, but I love Dorothy McGuire in this film. She’s amazing in this movie. She is able to convey so much emotion with her face. McGuire plays a mute character in this film. She cannot speak. However, because of McGuire’s superb acting in this film, the audience doesn’t miss any of Helen’s feelings or thoughts without the dialogue. In fact, in this film, I think dialogue would have just gotten in the way of McGuire’s performance.
If you want to see another amazing Dorothy McGuire performance, check out The Enchanted Cottage (1945), co-starring Robert Young.