Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Spiral Staircase (1946)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

In director Robert Siodmak's and RKO's suspenseful psychological drama with an atmosphere of terror and suspense - it was a classic, old-fashioned haunted house horror tale with noirish and Gothic (and Hitchcockian) elements that involved a threatened, afflicted female and a serial killer in an old mansion (who specialized in killing imperfect, physically-flawed, handicapped or "afflicted" women). [Note: The set was the house from Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).]

The stylish, suspenseful, and taut thriller - and frightening psychological drama-mystery occurring during one evening in the house - and one of the earliest slasher films, was based on crime writer Ethel Lina White's 1933 novel "Some Must Watch," and was remade as The Spiral Staircase (1975, UK) with Jacqueline Bisset, Christopher Plummer, and Mildred Dunnock:

  • under the opening title credits, there was a bird's-eye view of the 'spiral staircase' where, during a frightening storm, a woman precariously descended the circular passageway
  • the main setting of the film at the turn of the century (1906) was in a small Vermont town where the Village Hotel was hand-cranking/projecting a silent film (D.W. Griffith's The Sands of Dee (1912) - released six years after the year of the film!) for its guests in the darkened parlor; the motion picture had been advertised as "The Wonder of the Age"; one of the viewers was mute young servant girl Helen (Dorothy McGuire)
  • the camera tilted up from the movie audience toward a ceiling chandelier and then - after a dissolve - entered into an upstairs hotel guest room, where an obviously crippled, lame, paraplegic local girl (Myrna Dell) closed her window due to an approaching storm
  • when the woman opened her clothes closet door, she was spied upon by a menacing, predatory killer (The Killer's 'Eye' was the eye of director Siodmak) hiding behind her clothes; there was a close-up zoom into the man's eyeball (similar to the silent film iris); as the female raised her arms to put on her nightgown, she was murdered by the serial killer in her room by strangulation - a close-up of her hands showed them clenched above her as she died; it was the third murder committed by a serial killer in the area; the camera then returned back to the climax of the short silent melodrama being viewed downstairs - a suicidal girl was carried dead from the sea

Lame Hotel Resident (Myrna Dell) About to Be Murdered by Strangulation

Intruder in Female's Clothes Closet

Close-Up Zoom into The Killer's Staring, Predatory, Menacing Eyeball

Close-Up of Victim's Clenched Hands During Strangulation
  • at the site of the murder, the town's long-standing elderly physician Dr. Harvey (Erville Alderson) briefly quarreled with and challenged his new rival doctor in town - young and handsome bachelor Dr. Parry (Kent Smith); afterwards, Dr. Parry (one of Helen's love interests) drove Helen in a horse-drawn carriage back to her place of employment - she was a live-in caretaker at an old, large, spooky and dark mansion for the mansion's wealthy, widowed, crabby, sometimes verbally-abusive, bed-ridden invalid matron Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), one of Dr. Parry's newest patients; during their drive, Dr. Parry expressed his concern about treating Helen's muteness ailment so that she could follow her dreams to be a teacher or a nurse; he suggested taking her to Boston to see some specialists
  • as they returned to the mansion, Helen had to walk part of the way home; during her spooky return in the midst of an approaching wind and rainstorm through a thick forest, she was watched, as she dropped her house key, and pursued by a dark figure in a slick black raincoat next to a tree
  • in the kitchen with house-keeper and cook Mrs. Emma Oates (Elsa Lanchester), Helen was cautioned about her well-being, since it was well-known that the recent three murders had all targeted defenseless and vulnerable young women with disabilities: (Mrs. Oates: "For a while I thought it might have been you....First, there was the girl with a scar on her face. Then that poor simple-minded creature, and now this cripple"); Mrs. Oates was known to be a frequent drinker, as she admitted later how it improved her abilities: "I see better, I hear better, and I feel much better"

Killer's Eyeball Staring at Helen on Upper Staircase

Closeup and Zoom Into Killer's Eyeball

Killer's Subjective View of Helen - Without a Mouth
Inside the Mansion, Helen Spied Upon By The Eyeball From Top of the Upper Staircase
  • once inside the house, Helen was again observed by a disembodied eyeball (from the second floor at the top of the staircase) after ascending part of the way up the staircase to Mrs. Warren's bedroom while she was viewing her reflection in a mirror; it was implied that the intruder had entered the house through a side window; the camera zoomed with a close-up into the blackness of the killer's eye - who imagined Helen without a mouth
  • in Mrs. Warren's bedroom, the awakened matron boasted to Helen about the tiger-skin rug on the floor - revealing a crucial plot point for later that she used to be a crack shot as a big-game hunter: ("I got him before he got me, the tiger I mean. I was as good as any man"); the matron reprimanded Helen for being late, but then warned Helen about being endangered, and encouraged her to run away: "Leave this house tonight if you know what's good for you"
  • the local Constable (James Bell) also arrived to speak to Mrs. Warren's anti-social stepson - scholarly biologist Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) who lived in the house, about the vicinity's murders; he also spoke about Helen's predicament since she also suffered from an 'affliction': "I'm especially worried about that girl who works for you....You see, every one of those girls murdered had something the matter with her, something wrong"; Professor Warren promised to protect Helen's safety
  • shortly later the Professor personally cautioned Helen: "Helen, I don't want to frighten you but because of what happened in town, we have to be especially careful for the next few days"; as Helen climbed the stairs, the Professor added: "Don't trust anyone"; upon Helen's return to Mrs. Warren's bedroom, she received another recommendation due to the matron's premonitions: "Pack your things, leave this house tonight...Go away, my dear....You're not safe, my dear"; Mrs. Warren admitted that she had psychic abilities and knew about the recent murder without being informed: ("I always know everything")

The Mansion's Cook-Housekeeper Mrs. Emma Oates (Elsa Lanchester)

Stepson Professor Albert Warren (George Brent)

Stephen Warren (Gordon Oliver)

Secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming)

Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood)

Groundskeeper Mr. Oates (Rhys Williams)
  • the house was populated by Mrs. Warren's real younger son Stephen Warren (Gordon Oliver) - an irresponsible, impudent womanizing playboy who recently returned from living abroad in Europe (Paris); he was currently having an affair with Albert's live-in, pretty assistant-secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), the Professor's former lover; other members of the household help included stern, verbally-abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), and handyman-groundskeeper Mr. Oates (Rhys Williams); both Stephen and Albert were rival suitors for Blanche's romantic attentions
  • when Mrs. Warren took a turn for the worse, Stephen administered a dose of ether to revive her; comments were made about Stephen's character by Mrs. Warren: ("There's always trouble when you come, Stephen, always trouble. Why didn't you stay away?"), and from her stepson the Professor who disliked Stephen and criticized him for his philandering: (Professor: "I don't like you. I never have. I have never trusted you")
  • there were many frightening elements - a raging storm outside, high contrast or light and dark shadows, the house (with many secret doors and heavy draperies), two levels of staircases (one up to Mrs. Warren's chamber, and another dark spiraling staircase into the pantry-kitchen and basement), an ominous eye watching from the shadows, a view of feet hiding behind obstacles, gusts of wind, flickering candlelights, and creaking doors - all tormenting to the victimized caretaker Helen and creating suspense
  • Dr. Parry, who had become Helen's love interest, arrived for a brief bedside visit with Mrs. Warren, who urged him to insure Helen's safety by taking her away immediately: ("Get Helen out of this house.... Because I know you love her. Take her away"); the ether used to treat Mrs. Warren an hour earlier had strangely disappeared; Mrs. Oates led the Professor into the mansion's basement cellar's locked wine closet to retrieve a bottle of brandy as a substitute; she took the opportunity to cleverly snatch an additional bottle for herself and then bragged to Helen: "Anything can happen in the dark"
  • in the downstairs den, Dr. Parry told Helen that he planned to leave with her that evening, after Mrs. Warren's obsessed and urgent request to take her away; he would take her that evening to his mother's place, and then to Boston the next morning for an examination, to help her work through her psychological issues; he believed that Helen's inability to speak had been trauma-induced and was possibly reversible
  • in the film's most dramatic scene, Dr. Parry revealed Helen's childhood history, when she shockingly witnessed her own house fire that lethally burned her parents: ("She wanted to scream herself, but somehow she couldn't...So without being able to do one thing to help, she saw her mother and father burn to death"); he urged her to cure herself through mental therapy, although he knew it would cause her further distress: "Have the courage to see it all again. And by not blocking it out of your mind, you may find your voice again"; he grabbed her and tried to forcefully get her to talk: "Remember how wonderful it was when you had a voice?...You look at me as though you don't believe it, but I know I'm right. Try to talk! TRY IT! TRY IT!"; she silently collapsed into his arms
  • the cynical Stephen objected to Dr. Parry's concern about Helen's welfare and called him a "hick doctor"; a fist-fight was imminent between them, with additional tensions growing when the Professor also questioned Dr. Parry's intentions to personally care for Helen and take her away; Stephen insinuated similar motivations when he asked: "Are your humanitarian instincts restricted only to people with serious afflictions?"; fortunately, the Doctor was interrupted with an emergency call to the Wilson's residence; before leaving, he handed Helen the Wilson's phone number (189) on a piece of paper, instructed her to begin packing, and then kissed her during their goodbye at the front door
  • Helen fantasized that she and Dr. Parry were to be married; they danced together in the abundantly flower-decorated foyer of the mansion, but during the marital ceremony itself, she was dumbstruck and unable to respond "I do" for the marriage vows; she felt stern judgment from the attendees - and the fantasy dissolved and went out-of-focus
  • unhappy and upset with Stephen's harsh, chauvinistic treatment of her and his attitude, Blanche told him that she was leaving with Helen and Dr. Parry on their trip to Boston; she informed Helen of her decision: ("I've got to leave this house. It hasn't been good for anyone here")
  • in a classically-filmed frightful sequence, with a single flickering candle, as Blanche took the spiral staircase down to enter the dark basement to retrieve her suitcase, she fearfully heard footsteps, and was clearly relieved when she recognized someone: "Oh, it's you. You scared the life out of me" - but then after the appearance of the eyeball and a zoom into its darkness, a figure approached toward her, extinguished her candle, and suddenly attacked and murdered her by strangulation
Blanche's Strangulation Murder in the Basement
  • after Blanche's death, the spiteful Nurse announced to Mrs. Warren in her upstairs bedroom that she was quitting her detested job to escape all of the matron's verbal abuses: ("I'm tired of being a target for an evil old woman"); the young and tormented mute Helen soon came to believe, after being told a premonition of her death by Mrs. Warren, that she would be the killer's next victim, and that she must leave immediately ("You must go away. Leave this house")
  • in the tense conclusion, the Professor asked for Helen to find Blanche; she found the body of Blanche in the cellar; she turned to find Stephen standing behind her after he entered through an open basement door to the outside; after he told her: "Helen, you must forget everything you've seen here, let me handle this," she suspected that Stephen had murdered Blanche, and locked him up in the basement
  • after running upstairs into the pantry-kitchen and unable to rouse the drunken Mrs. Oates, she frantically raced around and then phoned for help but was unable to communicate Dr. Parry's number to the operator; she scribbed a note to Professor Warren that Blanche had been murdered by Stephen; as he led her up the ascending staircase to his step-mother's bedroom, he calmly revealed that he was glad she couldn't complete her phone call - Helen intuitively realized the shocking truth that the Professor was the serial killer
  • the Professor forced her to stop in front of the mirror halfway up to look at her reflection (without a mouth): ("You looked in this mirror once before today. I watched you. You had no mouth then. Just as you have none now. Look at yourself. Look"); he calmly confessed to Helen that he was the serial killer of the others - targeting the weak and imperfect of the world that he felt needed to be eliminated: "And there's no room in the whole world for imperfection"
  • the Professor donned black gloves and threatened to grab Helen as he explained his premeditated plan about how he had orchestrated everything to empty the house; he reasoned that he had jealously killed Blanche because she didn't love him, and had settled his score with Stephen who was also weak and imperfect and deserved to be eliminated, to please his demanding father who detested imperfection: ("To see me dispose of the weak and imperfects of the world, whom he detested. He would have admired me for what I'm going to do"); Helen fled upstairs into Mrs. Warren's locked bedroom, but was unable to awaken her as she frantically searched for Mrs. Warren's gun; although the Constable came to the door with a message from Dr. Parry about how his return would be delayed, Helen was unable to alert him from the upper-story window
Professor: "And there's no room in the whole world for imperfection"
  • in the suspenseful climax, Helen made an attempt to return to the basement to free Stephen, but fearing an attack (when she saw the Professor's leg hiding in the shadows), she decided to ascend the spiral staircase; she was chased and attacked by Professor Warren, and both were met by the dowager at the top of the stairs; she had emerged from her bed, staggered out with a gun, and shot her step-son five times in the chest as she yelled at the attacking killer: "Murderer...You killed them. You killed them all. The servant girl in the well. The others in the town. Today, the cripple in the hotel. You killed them all. Tonight, it would have been Helen. I heard you"; the Professor died at the foot of the staircase

Helen on Spiral Staircase Attempting to Descend to Basement and Free Stephen

Armed Mrs. Warren At Top of the Spiral Staircase

Helen's Ear-Shattering Scream at Gunshots
  • Helen's lost voice returned after the second gunblast when she screamed at the moment of her greatest peril; after the killing, Mrs. Warren ordered Helen to get Stephen - she retrieved him from the basement closet, and as he raced upstairs on the staircase to his mother, she asked for his forgiveness for blaming him for ten years, and then the elderly matron collapsed; Stephen rushed to her as she fainted (or died?) in his arms
  • now with restored speech, Helen uttered her first words since childhood with a phone call to an operator, asking for her bachelor-suitor Dr. Parry - Mrs. Warren's physician: ("1-8-9...Dr. Parry...Come...It's I, Helen") - the film's final line of dialogue

Mute Servant Helen (Dorothy McGuire) Watching Silent Film in Hotel Parlor

(l to r): Dr. Parry Sparring with Elderly Dr. Harvey

Dr. Parry - With Love Interest Helen - Interested In Getting Her Treated For Her Muteness in Boston

Helen's Spooky Walk Home in the Dark

Helen Spied Upon by Dark Figure While Returning to Mansion

Helen Looking at Her Reflection in Mirror Halfway Up the Upper Staircase

Invalid Matron of Mansion Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore)

Helen Increasingly Worried About The Recent Murders and All the Concerned Individuals Warning About Her Safety

Dr. Parry Describing To Helen Her Childhood Trauma That Caused Her Mute Condition, Causing Helen Further Distress ("Try it! Try it!")

Dr. Parry Kissing Helen at the Door as He Left the Mansion

Helen's Fantasy Of Marriage with Dr. Parry

Helen's Inability to Say "I Do" During Marital Ceremony Vows - Causing Extreme Embarrassment

Blanche's Fateful Trip Into the Basement to Retrieve Her Suitcase

Mrs. Warren's Premonition of Death to Helen

Helen's Discovery of Blanche's Corpse in Basement

Stephen with Helen in Basement

Helen's Scribbled Note to the Professor About Stephen Being the Murderer

The Mad Serial Killer's Confessions to Helen on the Upper Staircase

Professor Shot Dead by Mrs. Warren on Spiral Staircase

Film's Ending: Helen's Phone Call to Operator to Seek Her Doctor Friend


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