Favorites List --- The Spiral Staircase
I looked at The Spiral Staircase again this week. Among other things, it’s one of the best looking RKO titles around, that being result of the negative reverting to Selznick following general release and being better preserved since. So many of the other RKO’s went into C&C meat grinders and saw logos cleaved and end credits shorn. This one looks a million still and does justice to moody settings by director Robert Siodmak and cameraman Nicholas Musuraca. It’s a high-class scare picture like The Lodger, The Uninvited, and those few that major studios did during the forties when horror subjects were thought better left to low-budgets and kids. Likelier than not 1945-6 patrons wet pants over chill scenes in The Spiral Staircase, as it plows surprisingly inelegant ground, even as producer Dore Schary brings stately opulence to all aspects of production. I’d call it a Val Lewton with money, lots and lots of that compared with belts RKO wrapped around Lewton B’s. His were clearly a source of inspiration for The Spiral Staircase. Shadowy menace lurks about ink-black corners and even Kent Smith graduates up from Lewton’s unit to lend support. Ads called The Spiral Staircase one they dared to film, and it’s sure enough a whoopee cushion beneath mannerly mid-forties thriller-making. If Lewton had produced this story instead of Schary, it would certainly be better regarded. The psycho killer here has a thing for strangling disabled women, and the fact we can guess his identity early on doesn’t necessarily diminish suspense, for he has easy and continued access to would-be (and mute) victim Dorothy McGuire. The Spiral Staircase was consolidation of that actress’ promise as engineered by David O. Selznick, his efficiency at star-making being a hit-or-miss thing depending on what contracted merchandise he loaned where.
Selznick developed the project, cast most principals, then sold his ready work to RKO, reserving a gross percentage and eventual ownership of The Spiral Staircase for reissues and ultimate sale to television. The result was overproduced in that manner unique to Selznick, even if Schary called credited shots. DOS investment in contractee Dorothy McGuire disallowed too much authority being entrusted with others. He didn’t want properties ruined by inept handling (which in Selznick’s view meant virtually anyone outside himself), so even projects sold brought with them ongoing memos and second-guessing out of DOS headquarters. Dore Schary was a Selznick employee as well, so was obliged to listen when the boss expressed concerns. Throwing $968,000 to the final negative cost might have been overkill, considering what Val Lewton achieved with less than a quarter of that for individual entries in his series. Money bespoke class to pupils taught by Selznick. He could be impressed by what former assistant Lewton did with Cat People, as others engaged on The Spiral Staircase undoubtedly were, but no package of Selznick’s was going to be done on short change. The Spiral Staircase has the feel of something made by people determined to bring class to a lowly genre, as if a deluxe model reboot of humble horrors Val cobbled out of near-nothing could somehow remove the stain chiller subjects bore.
Imagine the Amberson house well haunted and besieged with unsolved murders. I wonder how many of those sets made redressed way to The Spiral Staircase. Robert Siodmak suggests the directorial look of Welles at times. Citizen Kane’s influence was felt in so many RKO films that came after it. Did any artists leave deeper imprints there than Orson Welles and Val Lewton? I half expected Amberson family members to lend an investigative hand to mayhem of The Spiral Staircase, if for no other reason than familiarity of backgrounds and approximately same period setting. Siodmak was no stranger to horror themes. Those plus noirs on his resume made this an ideal berth, but how free was his hand to develop stylings we associate with that director? The Spiral Staircase doesn’t list among Siodmak’s best (should, though). Again, it’s more a producer’s accomplishment than a director’s. Not much termite art could bore ways through masonry so solidly built as this. Profits realized by The Spiral Staircase were RKO’s highest for 1945 after The Bells Of St. Mary’s. There was $2.6 million in domestic rentals and $1.2 foreign, with a final gain of $885,000. More’s the pity for not having been around in late 1945 and ’46 when it was playing, as I'll bet The Spiral Staircase generated similar word-of-mouth excitement to the much later Psycho, for both dealt with "sick" murders committed against women and represented steps forward in onscreen violence. The difference is that Psycho still has capacity to shock, while The Spiral Staircase appears mild via passage of time, though I doubt it seemed so in the forties. Were we to classify this one as a horror film, The Spiral Staircase would be the biggest genre succe$$ of the decade, and very likely one that audiences of the day remembered as scariest of them all.
If you shop for The Spiral Staircase on DVD, be sure and get the Anchor Bay release instead of the MGM. DVD Beaver explains why here.