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Mystery Movies - The Spiral Staircase

Buy Spiral Staircase
Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore
ABC 1946
Sony Pictures Home Video 2005
84 minutes

It was a dark and stormy night.. is the setting for The Spiral Staircase. It is one of those classic thrillers from the forties that many people still remember fondly. The talent is definitely there, especially Dorothy McGuire as Helen, the mute servant girl who is in danger, George Brent, and screen legend Ethel Barrymore who was nominated for best supporting actress. The Dvd film quality is almost pristine with perhaps a couple scenes that look too dark  though it is hard to say if that is something in the original movie or the transfer to Dvd. The story itself is pretty good: a bad guy is going around killing handicapped women and Helen is probably next. Unfortunately, the style of the movie itself makes that it has not aged that well although it is still interesting. However, Ethel Barrymore is excellent as ailing Mrs. Warren especially considering she is limited to her bed. She and star Dorothy MacGuire are both given limiting roles and both definitely shine.

This whodunit is very reminiscent of the stylistics often associated with silent movies including only seeing the evil eye of the murderer. In a way this makes sense as Helen is mute. It opens with the presentation of a silent movie in the local hotel during which a young woman is killed. The music is highly melodramatic and the scene where Helen rushes home has definitely inspired many other moviemakers throughout the years. You then get the closed room murder story where the killer and his victim are in the same house with a whole bunch of different other characters on a dark and stormy night. Some try to leave the house, not all make it. The director leads you towards a suspect very quickly but you can never be sure - you are guessing right until the very end.

Unfortunately, there is a love story thrown in between Helen and Parry, the new doctor in town, and the possibility Helen might speak again and that kind of distracts from the main story for a while. The supporting cast of characters such as stepbrothers Albert and Stephen Warren, the groundskeeper, the nurse, the secretary, and the maid also all have their moments on screen and this to a modern audience goes against the grain of the cut to the chase kind of mysteries we are now used to. So even at a short eighty-four minutes the movie sometimes feels a bit long. Still, the last few minutes of The Spiral Staircase are very tight and quite thrilling.

Ethel Barrymore is excellent as ailing Mrs. Warren especially considering she is limited to her bed. She and star Dorothy MacGuire are both given limiting roles and both definitely shine.

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