It’s Halloween, so time for things to get a little shuddery here at Fedora! Ethel Lina White, a big name in the 1930s, is best known today for The Wheel Spins, later filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes. Some Must Watch was also filmed several times as The Spiral Staircase. But let’s start with the original. Helen Capel is 19-years-old and works for the Warren family at the Summit, their spooky and secluded house on the Welsh border …
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for links, click here); and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today hosted at Todd’s Sweet Freedom blog.
“She was just in time to see the last tree split into two, as a man
slipped from behind its trunk, and disappeared into the shadow”
The action all takes place in and around the Summit on a dark and stormy night, which for a neo-Gothic like this is pretty much as it should be. Helen is an orphan (natch) and has had to go to work since the age of 14. An inquisitive redhead with a zest for life that belies her downtrodden origins (double and triple natch), she soon discovers why the Warren family find it so hard to keep staff. Apart from the seclusion of the house, there is gossip about the deaths of two maids who were killed while the old master of the house was still alive.
“A screw’s loose,” she thought. “Directly I’ve time I’ll get the
screwdriver and put it right.”
It is rumoured that the old man himself, Sr Roger, who built the Summit, was then bumped off by his widow, the now bed-ridden Lady Warren (who only managed to avoid prison thanks to a wily lawyer). Mr and Mrs Oates are really the only staff, looking after Lady Warren’s middle-aged egghead step-children Blanche and Septimus (known generally as the Professor), and the latter’s son, Newton, who has recently brought home a wife, the beautiful-looking but utterly spoiled and seemingly sex-starved Simone.
The only other member of the household is Stephen Rice, a pupil of the Professor who has also become the object of Simone’s attention, sparking (as intended) jealousy in her husband.
“She was up in her bedroom, and drawing her beautiful party-frock over head, when he finished the job for her. Twisted the lovely satin frock all round her neck, as it ate right into her throat, and wrapped it all over her face, so that she never saw another mortal thing on earth.”
As the story begins there have already been four murders in the surrounding area – all young women, seemingly unconnected from each other, each body found progressively nearer and nearer to the Summit. As the evening wears on a fifth body is found nearby, that of a young domestic who left the Summit after one of her Ladyship’s typical attacks of violent behavior. Lady Warren is in fact more than just a fiery eccentric – utterly devious, she hides a revolver in her room and really may, as the rumours say, have killed her husband. And yet Helen rather admires her gumption …
“She looks afraid,” thought Helen. “But what’s she afraid of? It–it must be me.”
The environment is a rather hostile one, the emotional temperature being turned progressively to ‘hysterical’ as the evening wears on and Helen is more and more isolated as, in somewhat contrived fashion, the number of occupants decreases. Price stalks off because Blanche won’t let him keep his new dog in the house; Simone dashes out after him (having first locked Helen in her room for trying to stop her), so Newton also heads out in hot pursuit. Mr Oates is sent away when Lady Warren’s oxygen cylinder is found to be unexpectedly, and indeed suspiciously, empty. Mrs Oates steals a bottle of brandy from the cellar and gets crocked; Helen’s only hope is the newly arrived Nurse Barker, but she turns out to be a very bitter and unkind individual who seems to just want to terrify Helen, resenting her good looks and youth. Mrs Oates even thinks the nurse might be a man in disguise, though Helen is not convinced, saying to herself, “the fact that she shaved could be discounted, as a downy lip was not an uncommon feminine trait.”
Helen’s only friend is Dr Parry, the local GP, but when he stops by and leaves a note to be let in, the billet-doux is intercepted by the nurse and torn up. It’s not long before Helen is left alone, convinced that the killer is stalking the house looking for her … The story is very contrived and the character types both predictable and rather nasty, drawn on pretty extreme lines. There are however some nice touches to the writing, such as when Helen finds evidence of someone skulking in the house from the impression of a breath in a mirror:
“Her small white face swam up in the dim depths of the mirror in the old familiar way; but, as she drew nearer, she noticed something which was both mysterious and disturbing. A faint mist blurred the glass, about the height of a man’s mouth”
Ultimately the book is revealed to be a whodunit, with a member of the household exposed as the killer, having engineered the exits from the Summit just to be able to trap Helen. It’s not very convincing, but works well enough though I did end up wishing that at least some of the characters behaved in a more recognisably human fashion though! The book is available for free online at Gutenberg. Jeff Pierce reviewed the book over at his blog, The Rap Sheet, while Suzannah Rowntree considered, inter alia, its merits as a Christian work over at Vintage Novels.
“I am sure you were trying to be helpful,” Miss ‘Warren told her. “But it only hinders to imagine stupid impossibilities.” She added, with a grim smile, “I suppose, like all girls, you go to the Pictures.”
I have to say, while this book was entertaining enough in its own way, it also suffers from going way over the top with its characters, undermining its credibility. It is also oddly lacking in atmosphere. This is not something you can accuse the the 1945 movie adaptation of lacking however …
The first film version (there have been many remakes – avoid the 1975 version starring Jacqueline Bisset at all costs) was packaged by David Selznick who, as was increasingly his habit from the mid 40s onwards, chose not to produce the film himself but sold the assets on to another studio – thus he provided the script and the stars but turned it over to RKO, who sensibly hired Robert Siodmak to direct. A master of the macabre and Film Noir (I reviewed his Phantom Lady here), we can see his absolute control of the medium right from the memorable opening. Relocated from the Welsh border in the early 1930s to New England at the the end of the 19th century, we meet Helen at the cinema where she is watching a silent movie. Upstairs a woman with a limp is getting dressed – we track forward in her closet to see the closeup of an eye watching her. We literally go inside the eye, to gain the warped point of view of the killer – he strangles the woman, though all we see are her arms in the air (a description taken directly from the novel and quoted above). The adaptation, beyond shifting the timeframe back some 35 years, is fairly faithful but makes several changes. Helen is now a mute, following a traumatic event in her past, and the doctor wants her to get psychological help to reclaim her voice. The Warren house loses Newton, while Simone and Blanche are conflated in the stunning shape of the young Rhonda Fleming (now the professor’s secretary) while Stephen becomes the professor’s half-brother, the two fighting for the girl’s affections.
Helen’s journey to the Summit, which opens the book, is pushed further into the film but is a major and very atmospheric setpiece, beautifully shot in gleaming black and white by Nicholas Musuraca, one of the great unsung heroes of RKO in the 1940s and early 50s (his other credits include Cat People, Out of the Past and The Locket). The characters in the film are much less strident than their equivalents in the book, though Ethel Barrymore as the matriarch is still pretty fierce. Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker and Elsa Lanchester as the sozzled Mrs Oates are much more sympathetic. The nice but slightly wooden George Brent is very well cast as the professor and Dorothy McGuire is her usual down-to-earth gorgeous self as the young woman recovering from the traumatic death of her parents in a fire. Siodmak brings his usual expressionistic sense of style, most notably in a Freudian fantasy sequence in which Helen torments herself by imagining her wedding day with the doctor ruined by her inability to speak the words “I do.” There is also a bizarre moment when we see her through the killer’s eyes, with her mouth rendered invisible which is really creepy … The decision to make her mute, and make the killer’s motivation the extermination of women he sees as being in some way tainted or imperfect is a powerful one, coming as it does from the end of the Nazi era and gives the film an extra punch. By streamlining the characters and narrative, emphasising the Gothic surroundings and bringing much more by the way of subtext, it turns an OK potboiler in to a truly memorable suspense movie, a classic of the ‘old dark house’ variety.
DVD Availability: Although originally released by RKO as part of its arrangement with Selznick’s Vanguard company, this title has jumped from label to label over the years – luckily, like most of the Selznick library, it has usually looked very good on home video. I own a very nice region 2 DVD put out by Fremantle, bought in the UK about 10 years ago. It doesn’t have much in the way of extras but preserves the marvellous look of the movie (all the frame grabs used here are taken from it, used solely for the purposes of criticism and review). In the US it was released on DVD by MGM and is easy to find.
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Producer: Dore Schary
Screenplay: Mel Dinelli
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Albert S. D’Agostino, Jack Okey
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Helen), George Brent (Professor Warren), Ethel Barrymore (Mrs Warren), Kent Smith (Dr Parry) , Rhonda Fleming (Blanche), Elsa Lanchester (Mrs Oates), Gordon Oliver (Steve), Sara Allgood (Nurse Barker), James Bell
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘set in England’ category: