Monday, April 13, 2020

Elegant 1940s Thrillers: The Spiral Staircase and Laura

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1946).

Two of the most enjoyable and elegantly appointed thrillers of the Hollywood big-studio era came out two years apart – Laura in 1944 and The Spiral Staircase in 1946. Actually they belong to different genres. Laura is a murder mystery; The Spiral Staircase is a psycho-killer movie, one of the few classic examples from that period that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t direct. (Hitch turned out Shadow of a Doubt in 1943 with Joseph Cotten as Charlie Oakley, the “Merry Widow murderer” who provokes the fall from innocence of his small-town niece, played by Teresa Wright, who shares his name; and Strangers on a Train in 1951, wherein Robert Walker tries to crisscross murders with a handsome tennis champ played by Farley Granger.)

In The Spiral Staircase, based on an Ethel Lina White novel called Some Must Watch and set in the first decade of the twentieth century, the psychopath, whose identity remains secret until the final sequence, targets young women who fall short of his notion – and, it turns out, his loathsome late father’s – of perfection. (White also wrote The Wheel Spins, the source material for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.) When a woman with a crippled leg is murdered, the wealthy, widowed invalid (Ethel Barrymore, mesmerizing as always) who employs a mute domestic (an affecting Dorothy McGuire) fears for her safety and urges her to flee the Gothic mansion on the hill where she lives with her stepson (George Brent), a well-heeled professor, and sometimes her ne’er-do-well son (Gordon Oliver). Psycho-killer movies often include döppelgangers; this one doesn’t quite, but the two half-brothers almost complete the convention. The other characters are a sympathetic young doctor (Kent Smith) who has fallen in love with McGuire’s Helen; the professor’s secretary (Rhonda Fleming), who has slept with both brothers; a dipsomaniac housekeeper (the inimitable Elsa Lanchester); and a nurse who suffers the abuse of her employer (Sara Allgood, in a dull, one-note performance). The premise of a psycho hiding in the house of a moody invalid recalls Night Must Fall, the engaging Emlyn Williams play from 1935, but Barrymore’s Mrs. Warren isn’t whiny or a victim; she’s valiant. And though the unlikable nurse gets the sharp side of her tongue, the old lady treats Helen like a beloved daughter. Incidentally, The Spiral Staircase is better than either of the two movie versions of Night Must Fall.

Mel Dinelli wrote the screenplay, but it’s Robert Siodmak’s direction, in tandem with the beautiful cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca) and art direction (Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey), that makes it memorable. Siodmak was one of the most gifted German émigrés to resettle in Hollywood in the thirties and forties, but he never became a celebrity like Fritz Lang or his pal Billy Wilder. His output in America was erratic – he didn’t get his pick of projects – but except for The Killers, his imaginative film of the Hemingway short story (which came out right), The Spiral Staircase was the best thing he ever did. His command of the trappings of the genre and his expressionist visuals are impressive. The movie opens with an aerial shot of the staircase of the title – shrouded in shadow, it’s the centerpiece of Mrs. Warren’s house – that is no doubt meant as a nod to the granddaddy of psycho-killer films, Lang’s 1931 M.

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura (1944).

Laura, one of the few good pictures Otto Preminger ever directed (derived from a Vera Caspary novel), stays in the mind for a number of reasons. One is the seedy collection of hangers-on who emerge after the murder of the title character: Vincent Price as her southern-jock fiancé, a philandering wastrel; Judith Anderson as her desperate aunt; and Clifton Webb as the wonderfully named Waldo Lydecker, the celebrity columnist and radio personality who begins the movie by telling her story in voice-over and then introduces her, in a flashback, when he’s interviewed by the detective on the case. (Laura is played by the lovely, untalented Gene Tierney, who always seems to be pouting and whose hats, designed by Bonnie Cashin, are more distinctive than her performance.) Another is David Raksin’s haunting theme song, perhaps the most exquisite ballad ever written for a movie – even without the signature Johnny Mercer lyric, unheard on the soundtrack. A third is the twist that turns the film around not quite halfway through; the script is credited to Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhart, and Ring Lardner Jr. apparently worked on it as well. A fourth is Dorothy Adams’s feverish performance as Laura’s fiercely loyal maid Bessie: it’s one of those small, one-of-a-kind supporting performances from the forties that you don’t forget (like Elisha Cook Jr. in The Big Sleep), so it’s infuriating that Adams doesn’t even get screen credit.

The two best things about Laura are linked. It’s a whodunit that turns into a sort of ghost story when the homicide detective, Mark McPherson, sitting in the dead woman’s apartment reading her diary and letters and mesmerized by her portrait over the mantle, begins to fall in love with her. McPherson is played by Dana Andrews, a marvelous actor whose presence, hard-boiled on the outside and tender and sensitive on the inside, is one of the emblems of Hollywood movies of this decade. Andrews is the traumatized WWII flyer, decorated for his battle heroics, who returns to his small Midwestern town in William Wyler’s great The Best Years of Our Lives (released two years later) and can’t find a decent job. In Laura he gives his second-best performance.

One final note: like many of the most memorable movies of its era, Laura ventures into the realm of high comedy. Hollywood had stopped turning out straight high comedies in the forties; the times weren’t right for them. But they sometimes showed up in genre cross-pollinations, movies like Rebecca, Citizen Kane, The Heiress and Laura. In all four of these pictures the aristocracy is depicted as corrupted, poisonous. In Laura Mark, the almost unruffled straight shooter – only Price’s Shelby Carpenter manages to get under his skin – is the device by which Preminger and the screenwriters skewer Laura’s chic set: Detective McPherson, man of the people, without an ounce of inauthenticity in his make-up. It’s a part Andrews was born to play.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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