AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
The Spiral Staircase
Alternate Title: The Silence of Helen McCord
Director: Robert Siodmak (Dir)
Release Date:   1946
Premiere Information:   New York opening: week of 7 Feb 1946
Production Date:   mid-Aug--mid-Oct 1945
Duration (in mins):   83
Duration (in feet):   7,516
Print this page
Display Movie Summary

Cast:   Dorothy McGuire (Helen)  
    George Brent (Professor [Albert] Warren)  
    Ethel Barrymore (Mrs. Warren)  
    Kent Smith (Dr. [Brian] Parry)  
    Rhonda Fleming (Blanche)  
    Gordon Oliver (Steve Warren)  
    Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Oates)  
    Sara Allgood (Nurse Barker)  
    Rhys Williams (Mr. Oates)  
    James Bell (Constable)  
    Larry Wheat (Minister)  
    Stanley Price (Starry-eyed man)  
    Myrna Dell (Girl with limp)  
    Erville Alderson (Dr. Harvey)  
    Charles Wagenheim (Clerk)  
    Ellen Corby (Woman in corridor)  
    Dickie Tyler (Freddy)  
    Irene Mack    
    Leslie Raymaster    

Summary: In a small New England town in 1906, Helen McCord, a mute maid-servant, goes to see a moving picture on her day off. Just as the film ends, a crash is heard in the room upstairs, and when the projectionist runs up the stairs to investigate, he discovers the body of a lame girl strangled to death. The girl is the latest victim in a series of murders whose victims are all women suffering from physical imperfections. When Dr. Brian Parry, the new physician in town, arrives to examine the body, he is challenged by Dr. Harvey, the town's established doctor and Parry's professional rival. After Parry and Harvey argue, Parry offers to drive Helen to the house of Mrs. Warren, her invalid employer. Along the way, Parry encourages Helen to try to regain her voice. His expression of concern is interrupted when a young boy appears in the road and pleads with the doctor to examine his mother. As a storm brews, Parry leaves Helen to walk home alone while he drives off with the boy. As Helen approaches the house, it begins to pour, and she drops her keys while a man watches her from behind some bushes. After unlocking the door, Helen begins to climb the stairs to Mrs. Warren's bedroom. The figure of a man watches her from the stairway as she pauses to study her reflection in the mirror. When Helen enters Mrs. Warren's room, her bedridden employer warns her that she is not safe in the house and cautions her to leave immediately. Soon after, the constable appears at the house to inform Professor Albert Warren, Mrs. Warren's stepson, that the murderer is in the vicinity, but the professor reassures Helen that he will protect her. As the others concern themselves with the murderer, Steve Warren, Mrs. Warren's ne'er-do-well son who has just returned from Europe, romances Blanche, his mother's secretary. When Mrs. Warren suffers a relapse, Helen brings Steve to her bedside, and he revives her with ether. After he leaves the room, Mrs. Warren laments his return, claiming that trouble is his constant companion. Meanwhile, downstairs, the professor criticizes Steve's lack of responsibility and Steve accuses him of being jealous over his relationship with Blanche. Soon after, Dr. Parry, summoned by Mrs. Warren, comes to the house. In the privacy of her bedroom, Mrs. Warren confides to the doctor that his strength reminds her of her late husband, who detested his sons because he considered them to be weaklings. Fearing for Helen's safety, Mrs. Warren demands that Parry take her away that night. After consenting to her demands, Parry prescribes ether for his patient. The ether has mysteriously disappeared, however, and so the professor sends Oates, one of the servants, to the village for a new supply. To provide a stimulant for his stepmother's weakened condition, the professor, accompanied by Mrs. Oates, the housekeeper, descends to the cellar for a bottle of brandy. While they are there, Mrs. Oates, who is fond of alcohol, steals a bottle for herself. After treating Mrs. Warren, Parry insists that Helen leave the house with him that night and accompany him to Boston to see a specialist. Parry reveals to Helen that he knows that her muteness was caused by the trauma of watching her mother and father burn to death when she was a girl. Parry is interrupted by Steve, who cynically questions his concern for Helen. Before he can leave with Helen, however, the doctor is called away to care for the Wilson boy . Handing Helen a piece of paper with the Wilsons' phone number written on it, Parry tells her he will return later. After he departs, Helen fantasizes about marrying the doctor but being unable to speak the words "I do" during their wedding ceremony. Later, Blanche confides her unhappiness to Steve, and when he responds with taunts and threats, boasting that he likes to see women cry, she decides to leave with Helen. On her way to the cellar to fetch her suitcase, Blanche sees Mrs. Oates passed out in the kitchen, drunk. In the cellar, Blanche is startled by the sound of the howling wind but is comforted when she glimpses a familiar face. Her reassurance melts into terror, however, when the figure steps from the shadows and strangles her. Meanwhile, upstairs, Barker, Mrs. Warren's nurse, who is fed up with her employer's abuse, quits and the professor asks Steve to harness the horses and drive her into town. The professor then asks Helen to relay a message to Blanche, and when Helen descends to the cellar, she finds Blanche's body. Startled by Steve's sudden appearance in the cellar, Helen, certain that he is the murderer, locks the door and runs upstairs. Pulling the Wilsons' phone number from her pocket, Helen picks up the phone receiver but is unable to repeat the number to the operator. Finding the professor in the hallway, Helen hastily scribbles a note reporting Steve's murder of Blanche. Under the pretense of taking Helen to safety in his mother's room, the professor escorts her up the stairs, stopping in front of the mirror. Demanding that Helen look at her reflection, which has no mouth, the professor calmly announces that he is going to kill her because there is no room for imperfection. After recounting that the missing ether, Mrs. Oates's drunken state and Blanche's murder are all part of his premeditated scheme, the professor boasts that he plans to eliminate all the weakness and imperfection that his father detested. Shaking free of her persecutor, Helen runs into Mrs. Warren's room and tries to awaken the sleeping invalid. Just then, the constable knocks at the front door with news that Parry is unable to leave the Wilson boy. As the constable returns to his carriage, Helen pounds at the window, but he mistakes the sound for the banging of a gate and drives away. Helen then runs down to the cellar to free Steve, but sensing that the professor is waiting for her, she climbs back up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, Mrs. Warren waits, gun in hand, and shoots her stepson, causing Helen to scream at the sound of the shots. Mrs. Warren then sends her to get Steve and when he appears, she begs his forgiveness, explaining that she thought he was the murderer because the professor only killed when his half-brother returned home. When his mother collapses, Steve tells Helen to call Parry. Helen walks to the phone, picks up the receiver and recites the number. 

Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.  
  Vanguard Films, Inc.  
Production Text: A Dore Schary Production
Distribution Company: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.  
Director: Robert Siodmak (Dir)
  Harry Scott (Asst dir)
Writer: Mel Dinelli (Scr)
Photography: Nicholas Musuraca (Dir of photog)
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino (Art dir)
  Jack Okey (Art dir)
Film Editor: Harry Marker (Ed)
  Harry Gerstad (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Darrell Silvera (Set dec)
Costumes: Edward Stevenson (Gowns)
Music: C. Bakaleinikoff (Mus dir)
  Roy Webb (Mus)
Sound: John L. Cass (Sd)
  Terry Kellum (Sd)
Special Effects: Vernon L. Walker (Spec eff)
Production Misc: Edgar Peterson (Prod asst)
  Fred Fleck (Prod mgr)
Country: United States
Language: English

Source Text: Based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (New York, 1941).
Authors: Ethel Lina White

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. 31/12/1945 dd/mm/yyyy LP123

PCA NO: 11150
Physical Properties: b&w:
  Sd: RCA Sound System

Genre: Mystery
Sub-Genre: Psychological
Subjects (Major): Handicapped
  Psychological torment
Subjects (Minor): Cellars
  False accusations

Note: The working titles of this film were The Silence of Helen McCord and Some Must Watch . According to a HR news item, RKO acquired the rights to Ethel Lina White's novel from David O. Selznick's Vanguard Films. In a memo reproduced in a modern source, Selznick states that the literary rights were part of a package sold to RKO under a partnership agreement between the studio and Vanguard. According to the terms of that agreement, Selznick furnished the novel and the services of producer Dore Schary, director Robert Siodmak and stars Dorothy McGuire and Ethel Barrymore in exchange for a split of the profits. In a modern interview, McGuire stated that the eye seen in close-up in the film, supposed to be that of "Professor Albert Warren" (George Brent), was actually that of director Robert Siodmak.
       Barrymore was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work on this picture. Assistant director Harry Scott died on 10 Oct 1945, while working on the film. The 1975 British film The Spiral Staircase , starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Plummer and directed by Peter Collinson, was also based on White's novel. In 1961, NBC broadcast a televised version of White's novel titled The Spiral Staircase , starring Lillian Gish, Gig Young and Eddie Albert and directed by Boris Sagal. Another adaptation of the novel was broadcast on the Fox Family Channel in 2000. That version starred Nicollette Sheridan and Judd Nelson and was directed by James Head. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   5 Jan 1946.   
Daily Variety   4 Jan 46   p. 3.
Film Daily   10 Jan 46   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   23 Jul 45   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Aug 45   p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter   12 Oct 45   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Oct 45   p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Jan 46   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   12 Feb 46   p. 6.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   27 Oct 45   p. 2695.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   5 Jan 46   p. 2785.
New York Times   7 Feb 46   p. 29.
Variety   9 Jan 46   p. 79.

Display Movie Summary
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.