The opening scene of The Spiral Staircase immediately establishes the duality between appearance and interiority that will persist throughout this psychological thriller. Our heroine Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is watching a silent film at an inn. Just upstairs, a crippled woman is dressing while we see a staring eye gazing upon her. Suddenly, we see her hands, and only her hands, freeze in mid-air as she puts on her nightgown. It is a scene taut with sexual violence and perverseness even though we see nothing explicit.
It turns out that this killing is only the latest in a series of murders that have targeted young women with disabilities, and Helen, who is mute, seems to be a likely next target, as the townspeople are eager to let her know. The rest of The Spiral Staircase takes place in the mansion where Helen works. It would be easy to compare the mansion to the mind, with its many different aspects and hidden traits. In addition to the fraught first murder, the film delves into psychology wholeheartedly when Helen’s boyfriend Dr. Parry takes an avid interest in “curing” Helen’s muteness, which we find out is rooted in childhood trauma. Also, the eventual killer may not be the first toxic male in cinema to take his inadequacies out on an innocent woman, but one can see more than a few influences of this film on such serial killer movies such as Psycho and Peeping Tom.
While Freudian psychology abounds in The Spiral Staircase, the film actually lends itself to many different readings. In addition to a thriller, it could also be classified as a Gothic horror, itself a genre with psychological depth. The film also touches on themes of social class and the agency of women in society since Helen is literally and figuratively voiceless. At a crucial scene where she is unable to make a phone call to be rescued from the murderer, it plays as a striking metaphor for disenfranchisement. Even more abstractly, The Spiral Staircase has sometimes been seen as an allegory of Hollywood’s transition from silent cinema to sound mirrored in its heroine’s journey.
The reason that The Spiral Staircase can be interpreted in so many ways is that it is both a showcase of its influences and itself an influence on many future Hollywood movies. Dorothy McGuire pulled from silent films to influence her acting style, focusing heavily on facial expressions and dramatic movements. We see hints of German Expressionism that persisted through most noirs in the way cinematographer Nicholas Musuruca makes this house both expansive and claustrophobic with his evocative use of chiaroscuro. There are even hints of the old Universal horror pictures not only in the casting of Elsa Lanchester (most famous for playing the titular Bride of Frankenstein) as the sarcastic maid Mrs. Oates, but also the inevitability of the killer and the final girl trope in Helen as she struggles to survive against a seemingly unstoppable force.
This melange of diverse inspirations can probably be attributed to director Robert Siodmak’s past. Siodmak was born in Germany and had a long career directing everything from musicals to dramas. He rubbed shoulders with talents like Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Emeric Pressburger until World War II forced him to leave Paris and make his way to California. He would make over twenty feature films, most of which were stylish noirs including his most famous, The Killers. Films are collaborative, but Siodmak has a strong enough voice in his films, especially in the way that he is able to handle large casts and make distinctive characters with clear motivations, which is why this film is able to harbor all these diverse influences so well.
Spiral Staircase has not been the subject of much critical attention in recent years, but it may be one of the most sneakily influential films of modern American culture. Because of its influence on Hitchcock, we now have the modern slasher genre. Because it is so fascinated by the psychology of killers and victims, we now have true crime dramas such as Mindhunter. When Helen finally regains her voice in a climactic moment of trauma, it is a scream that resounds not just throughout the house but also far beyond the reach of this apparently modest film.