Summary of Discussion on The Spiral Staircase

Comments on Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946) included the film’s temporal and geographical settings; its use of early cinema entertainment; the film’s plot; its heroine; the source novel; feminism and the film’s characters; the couple; the melodrama genre and more specifically gothic tropes such as the staircase.

spiral credits

Our discussion began with appreciation for the film’s opening. This occurs just after the shadowy shot of a woman descending a spiral staircase over which the credits roll. After establishing a suitably creepy atmosphere, the film proceeds to communicate the film’s time and place. Small town America is conveyed by wide streets and the date narrowed to sometime in the 1910s judging by the dirt road, horses and carts,  and characters’ costumes. The date is further pinned down by the screening of a modern attraction – a short silent motion picture, The Kiss. (This might be an extract from Ulysses Davis’ 1914 version starring William Desmond Taylor, although several shorts with the same name were produced in the 1910s.)

The heroine of the film, young mute Helen spiral old film(Dorothy McGuire), is attending the screening and this aligns us with her as film goers.  It also creates a certain expectation of romance within the film – once more for both us and Helen. We especially liked this depiction of film history within a film text, and were impressed by the inclusion of a woman playing live piano accompaniment. Soon the murder of a disabled young woman is committed in her rooms above the theatre. The masterly fluid use of space between the lower and higher levels contrasts to the disjuncture inherent in our viewing of those enjoying an entertainment and the serious crime taking place upstairs. Even the dramatic nature of the short overtaken by ‘real’ events.

some-must-watchWhile the alignment of us with Helen, and the other film goers, draws us into the action the dissonance between audience experiences (silent vs sound) separates us. This led us to ponder some key differences between the source material (Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch 1933) and the film. The action has moved from rural UK to small-town America (despite the inclusion of recognisable British actors Elsa Lanchester and Sara Allgood). The heroine is now a mute which places her in the path of the serial killer murdering disabled women. These women begin 10 years earlier with a woman with learning difficulties, and more recently one with a scarred face (a strong comment on the linking of women and beauty), another woman with learning difficulties, a woman with mobility issues, one who refused to love the murderer (presumably this is seen to show a lack of judgement, though of course we know differently), and lastly possibly Helen, who is mute.  More significantly the film is placed around twenty years earlier than the novel.  Instances of feminism in the film are therefore displaced onto earlier times and the fact that the heroine literally, and not just metaphorically, has no voice is also connected to the time of women’s suffrage. We also noted that conduct literature of the time advocated all women being quiet – raising her hat to get attention rather than shouting.

We discussed the instances spiral high angle Eb gunof feminism in the film at some length. The heroine is not saved by a man, but a woman. Specifically Helen’s saviour is her elderly, seemingly bed-ridden and cranky employer Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore).  Not only does Mrs Warren urge Helen to leave the house for her own safety but she shoots her stepson, Professor Warren (George O’Brien), when she realises he has committed these heinous crimes.   Although this action might seem surprising – especially in terms of the character’s limited mobility – several important factors have been established earlier. We see Mrs Warren with a gun which she then manages to somehow hide and her hunting past is evidenced by the various animal trophies in her room which include several stuffed birds, tusks and a prominently placed tiger rug. The latter is focuses on when Helen almost trips over it. Mrs Warren  explicitly claims it as her ‘kill’ and notes that her husband said she was ‘not as beautiful’ as his first wife but that she was a much better ‘shot’ – a strength he greatly admired. As well as establishing Mrs Warren’s strong character the various stuffed animals add to the creepy setting by adding more watching pairs of eyes – death pervades not just the town, but the house too.

Mrs Warren also provides a vital insight into the motivations of the killer when she comments, early on, that her husband thought men could only be men if they were toting guns. This places the blame firmly at the feet of her dead husband and this is later confirmed by Professor Warren’s ‘justification’ to Helen. He specially states that his father would be proud he is ridding the world of the ‘afflicted’. (Notably not weak people – there are no male victims only those doubly ‘afflicted’ by disfigurement or disability and the being of the female gender.)

The_Spiral_Staircase SteveProfessor Warren’s half-brother Steve’s behaviour is also critiqued. His attentions are seen to bother his brother’s secretary, Blanche, with their final meeting including him telling her that he enjoys watching her cry. He considers this sadistic behaviour common to all men since women’s expressions of their emotions make the male gender feel ‘superior’. Specifically he cautions Blanche not to be ‘melodramatic’.

The film cannot be viewed as a straightforward criticism of patriarchy, however, as it switches between approaches. The romantic subplot with Doctor Parry expresses this most strongly. Helen and Doctor Parry’s status as a romantic couple is far more straightforward than either Rebecca or Sorry, Wrong Number. While Maxim de Winter and Lenore’s husband are killers (and significantly wife-killers) Doctor Parry is a decent man of conviction. He does not express his love for Helen other than a brief kiss, but it is commented on by Mrs Warren in front of the pair. Mrs Warren attempts to displace the responsibility for taking Helen away onto Doctor Parry, though this is unsuccessful.spiral couple This view of traditional gender roles is also held by Helen.  Her fantasy is of her wedding to Doctor Parry. She pictures this taking place at the house but this turns into a nightmare when she is unable to utter ‘I do’. It is also notable that Doctor Parry takes it upon himself to ‘cure’ Helen of her lack of speech becoming, albeit briefly, another threatening man in the narrative as she shouts at her. In fact Helen only regains her voice after the shock of Mrs Warren shooting her stepson.

We also spoke about the film’s effective creation and dissipation of suspense. As Helen walks home after the murder at the theatre she hears something. Arming herself with a heft tree branch she is relieved to discover the source of the sound was merely a rabbit. As Helen approaches the house she drops her door key and as she stoops to collect it we are afforded a glimpse of a man Helen does not see. Thankfully she reaches the front door and gains access to the house. This is not without a sense of foreboding though as Helen is being watched by various statutes and ‘faces’ in the furniture. Our concerns are made more concrete as it is soon revealed that someone has deliberately opened one of the windows whish the housekeeper Mrs Oates insists was earlier shut. Another moment of suspense is created as off-camera we hear Mrs Oates cry out as she walks out. The culprit – a bulldog- is soon revealed. Such switches (and those critiquing and supporting patriarchy) are part of the ‘rhythm’ of the film’s melodrama.

spiral DMMore specifically gothic tropes such as a woman carrying a candlestick exploring the space of the house also appear. While three women (Mrs Oates, Blanche and Helen) perform this action, only the heroine is actively investigating. Mrs Oates is seeking brandy in the cellar (which it is later revealed her employer Professor Warren has deliberately let her steal so that she will be incapacitated and  unable to interfere in his crimes)  and Blanche is simply retrieving her suitcase so she can leave. Helen alone is investigating by going looking for the missing Blanche. Shortly after Helen finds Blanche murdered, Steven appears on the scene and Helen is proactive in taking action – she utilises Mrs Oates’ candle trick to trick him into the cellar and lock the door. Interestingly other aspects of the heroine wearing a nightgown (see The Innocents 1961) is fulfilled by Blanche and later Mrs Warren who has places her house coat over her bedclothes when she shoots her stepson.

Staircases also play an important role. We noted the striking high angle shot which details Mrs Warren at the top of the staircase shooting her stepson several times. Her powerful position cats her as judge and executioner. More generally, character are often ascending and descending them. It is useful to bear in mind Mary Ann Doane’s comment on the staircase’s significance as a space of ‘transition’ (1987, pp. 135-6: https://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/melodrama-reading-doanes-paranoia-and-the-specular/) Wespiral mirror particularly noted the difference between the use of the huge front formal staircase (more usually used by the family) and the shadowy back stairs (for the servants). While the former were ascended a lot the back stairs were mostly descended. The fact the prominently placed mirror occupied liminal space by appearing half way up the formal staircase was also discussed. We found the killer POV shots occurring here especially tense, reminding us of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

 

You can find more information on Some Must Watch here: https://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/?s=some+must+watch)

 

As ever, do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

SWN opening imagesSadly, due to technical difficulties, we were unable to screen the advertised film, Uncle Silas.  Instead, we watched another woman in peril film Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Anatole Litvak, 88 mins). This starred Barbara Stanwyck as bedridden ‘cardiac neurotic’ Leona and Burt Lancaster as her husband, Henry Stevenson.  Superficially the film may not seem to have much in common with our focus on the Gothic theme other than it centring on a woman in peril.  However, our discussion noted the significance of several large shadowy houses/apartments and Leona and another female character turning into investigators.  We also spoke about how Leona was similar to, and different from, her fellow female Gothic investigators. There was discussion on the film’s radio play origins and the ways in which the film padded out two almost 3 times the radio play’s length and its extensive, and sometimes nested, use of Flashbacks.  The ways in which the film widened out the narrative from a prime focus on Leona and fleshes out is characters and their motivations were also commented on.  This allowed for us to usefully compare and contrast Sorry, Wrong Number’s central couple to the de Winters in Rebecca.  Finally we noted more traditionally filmic devices such as the Flashback and Montage, and the significance of the telephone in relation to cinema.

After the brief opening which combines dramatic text about the ‘horror’ of the telephone and shots of operators busily connecting people which establishes the importance of telephones to the film’s plot, we are afforded our first view of Stanwyck. Bedridden Leona is telephoning her husband’s office in an apartment which increasingly becomes full of shadows and suspense as she overhears a murder plot through a crossed wire. In addition to the large New York apartment Leona is confined to in the ‘present’ of the film we discussed other more Gothic spaces.  A large empty SWN shadows untitledbeach house is the focus of Leona’s husband’s criminal activities, while Leona’s childhood home, a Chicago mansion full of dark furniture, large hanging portraits, also appears. The latter is the setting for some of Leona’s moments of hysteria which comment on her odd relationship with her father, including accusations he wants to keep her all to himself.

SWN Leona and SallyDue to Leona’s restrictions, she relies on the telephone to access information for her investigations. These begin with her search for her husband which leads her to telephone her husband’s secretary. Leona is furnished with information about a woman who has visited her husband at his office. This is Sally Hunter – who it is revealed was Leona’s ‘friend’ and her husband’s girlfriend before Leona stole him away.  Significantly it is Sally who provides Leona with much of the information on the former’s husband’s investigation into the latter’s criminal activities.  We see Sally visiting the beach, though not entering the beach house so we are denied shots of her investigating the dark space.

In addition to acting as an enabler for Leona’s investigative interests (even though these are set in the past) Sally doubles Leona in other ways. She is her rival in love and both are interested in the investigation due to their concern for Henry. Sally also suffers in ways we can compare to Leona.  Although she is not physically restricted, the bonds of marriage and motherhood are clearly shown.  Sally’s husband assumes his wife is responsible for the fact their child is out of bed late and night and expects her to provide him and his friends with beers.  These restrictions even lead to her being tortured, likeSWN Sally phone Leona, by telephones – though to a lesser extent.  This is in terms of access as she chases around the city moving from her home to a drugstore so she can discuss the case with Leona openly, and when the drugstore closes to a telephone at a busy and noisy station.  This also succeeds in torturing Leona and the audience as we only find our information as Leona does and this is enacted in Flashbacks.

Notably not even Sally knows much about the investigation which furthers the suspense. Leona has to rely on a chance phone call from a man – a chemist at her father’s pharmaceutical business who reveals he was her husband’s partner in crime.  The calm Waldo Evans politely and slowly reveals the situation to Leona. Evans’ composure is effectively contrasted to Leona’s increasing hysteria – when it gradually becomes clear that she is the planned murder victim of the overheard telephone call.

early costumeLeona’s passive receiving of information prompted us to consider other ways in which she differs to more obviously Gothic heroines. While the second Mrs de Winter is hardly an active investigator, her questioning of various people and her physical movement through space sharply contrasts to Leona’s. They are also very different in terms of the sympathy they might elicit from the audience. The second Mrs de Winter is in many ways childlike in her innocence. Leona also exhibits childlike characteristics but these are of a spoilt child not one who needs protecting but one who tramples on others to get what she wants.  We might feel some sympathy for Leona in the desperate declaration of her love for her husband and her final fate, but she is fundamentally dislikeable – especially when compared to her double, Sally, whom she has treated very badly. It was noted that Leona is similar in some ways to the second Mrs de Winter’s vulgar employer Mrs Van Hopper. Both women are predatory towards the main male character in their respective films. This also extends to scenes set in each woman’s bedroom with both confined to bed by illness and wearing nightgowns.  While costume aligns Leona with Mrs Van Hopper it also separates her from the second Mrs de Winter and in Sorry, Wrong Number from Sally. Leona is always exquisitely dressed but the second Mrs de Winter and Sally are less expensively attired.

Furthermore both main female characters SWN Lancasterin Sorry, Wrong Number and Rebecca seem morally unambiguous.  Leona is dislikeable and plotting in nature. This was perhaps necessary to allow for her to be killed in the era of the Production Code, with the murder itself also a central part of the ‘famous’ radio play the film references in its credits.  The second Mrs de Winter is innocent and likeable. However the men in both films are morally murky.  Indeed both Henry and Maxim are painted fairly sympathetically as victims of either a demanding wife and threatening associates or a philandering wife.  The couple of Sorry, Wrong Number can be contrasted to Rebecca. While Maxim was a threat to his first wife it seems unlikely he will harm his second, while much of the threat to Leona stems from her husband’s inaction in not stopping his associates rather than deliberate plotting on his part.  We found it especially interesting that while part of Leona’s medical condition – her cardiac neurosis – is in effect hysteria causing her to think she has heart problems she is also facing a very real threat which her condition, and her behaviour, has made her vulnerable to.  By contrast, the second Mrs de Winter’s fears are shown to be entirely justified, though not in danger, when it is revealed her husband killed his late wife.

The fleshing out of characters, especially Henry, contrasts to the radio play. Also notably different is the use of extensive, at times nested, Flashbacks which certainly aids the rounding out of the characters. But it also breaks up the suspense to a large extent – rather than 30 minutes of mounting hysteria the back and forth and the pacing suggests a more rhythmic melodrama.  Rhythm was also seen in montages where it served a different purpose.  Most notably to this conveyed Leona and Henry’s progressing relationship as they visited several countries on their honeymoon and Leona increasingly treated Henry with cool disdain as she controlled his behaviour and kept a physical distance.

suspenseThe centrality of telephones to the narrative prompted comment as to its use as a device in the film as well as its wider significance. Even before we see any characters the evils of the telephone are described in terms of bringing ‘horror’ to some people.  We discussed the telephone’s ability to simultaneously bring people together in terms of audio and to emphasise geographical distance.  This is explicitly commented on when Henry (wrongly) reassures a frightened Leona that she is the middle of New York with a phone by her bed and therefore not in any danger. We noted that this served as a metaphor for cinema – while we can see and hear characters’ lives being played out we are unable to intervene. We mentioned earlier examples focusing on the telephone. These included a French one-handed play in which the only character has to listen on the phone as his wife is attacked, D. W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa (1909), and Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913) in which similar situations, but with happier outcomes, occur.

(You can see more on The Lonely Villa and Suspense from earlier blog discussions: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/05/12/melodrama-screening-and-discussion-15th-may-jarman-7-4-7pm/ and https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/05/16/summary-of-discussion-on-early-film-melodrama-shorts/)

Of course Sorry, Wrong Number contrasts to these in that the worried husband is, if only indirectly, responsible for the wife’s attack, further highlighting the ambiguity of the male character.

We also discussed Leona’s disability in terms of our next screening, The Spiral Staircase (1945).  Both women are also disabled in their passivity – being female appears to be another disability.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

And do check out some fascinating Fan and Trade Magazine materials relating to the film on the wonderful Network of Research: Movies, Magazines, Audiences (NoRMMA) blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=249

 

Sorry, Wrong Number Links

Film Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LMZcFMRV5o

The original radio play: https://archive.org/details/Suspense430525SorryWrongNumberWestCoast

 The Stanwyck radio remake for Lux radio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIbcJxQukO4

 Jack Benny’s take on the film:  

https://archive.org/details/JackBennyProgram481017SorryWrongNumber