Friday, August 27, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night...

The clip above contains numerous spoilers--it's really the denouement of the movie. But it also neatly demonstrates most of the virtues of The Spiral Staircase (1945) in one not-brief excerpt.

The film is a sort-of fusion between women's picture, 19th-century gaslight melodrama, early noir and Val Lewton-style horror, and old-dark-house thriller. What all of those genres boast is bravura black-and-white photography, which Spiral Staircase has in spades, as you can see in the clip. I wonder if this creepy staircase--which winds up being not as important as the title might suggest--remained lodged in Alfred Hitchcock's memory when he began working on Vertigo 12 or 13 years later.

Director Siodmak has great noir credits, but Spiral Staircase does not have the sense of fate, guilt or a hidden fretwork of evil that characterizes the best noir. It is a woman's melodrama, with a woman in jeopardy and a single evil man. Interestingly, the film changed the novel's original physically crippled heroine to a psychologically disturbed mute--a handicap which can (and is) overcome by the right circumstances. Still, it uses some excellent noir technique, especially the close-up on the killer's eyes before the killings we witness, which not only gives psychological focus but actually masks the identity of the killer. There is also a lot of dark and rain, which are noir tropes. The staircase could represent a place the heroine wants to go, but fears (such as marriage and sex). To get to the house with the staircase, you have to pass through a forest--with similar symbolic significances. And like noir, Spiral Staircase is less interested in mystery than it is in evil.

This film deserves to stay in the repertoire if only because of the fantasy sequence that begins at 0:51 minutes of the clip below. The music, the design and decoration, staging, camera placement and movement, sound treatment, all show the Hollywood machinery at full throttle (I can't help wondering if this house is made from bits of the sets for The Magnificent Ambersons) to convey a psychological crisis which precipitates the final resolution. Siodmak's work is fine, but one should not slight the dozens of crafts people who create such a richly detailed tapestry:

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